How to use an encyclopedia for research

Tips on developing your research skills

When you are doing research work, you may have to get material from an encyclopedia. An encyclopedia is a book or a set of books containing information on all subject matter. Encyclopedias which have ten or more volumes have a special volume which serves solely as index to all the subject matter in the set. Other encyclopedias like Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia have alphabetically arranged volumes.

A letter or letters on the binding of a volume indicate the topics in that volume.

For example, the topic “Pollution” will be found in the volume marked P.

The following pointers will help you locate easily the information that you noted:

1) Get the key word of the information that you need.

How do you get the keyword? First, reflect on the information that you need. Then narrow it down to the basic word. That basic word is the key word.

Suppose you want to get materials on the causes and effects of water pollution and the possible solutions to the problems caused by the water pollution. The causes, effects, problems and solutions on which you need information all pertain to pollution. Evidently, the basic word or key word is pollution.

2) Get the volume where information on the key word is found.

If the key word is pollution and the encyclopedia you are using has subject matter arranged alphabetically, get the volume where pollution is included. Your previous lesson on alphabetizing will be very careful.

If you are using an encyclopedia with an index, look up pollution in the index.

3) You will find that the key word is broken down into specific topics. Look for the specific topic you need.

If you are using Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia you will find a list of pages of the specific topics on the first page of each broad topic.

If you are using an encyclopedia with indexed subject matter, you will find that under each broad topic, the specific topics are listed alphabetically with the page number opposite each specific topic.

An index column for the broad topic pollution will be similar to the following.


                                Air pollution, 3 – 349-56

                                Ground-water pollution, prevention of 8 – 332-335

                                Ocean polluted by radio-activity 6 – 36

                                Streams and rivers polluted by sewage 5 – 328-330

                                Water pollution, elimination of 3 – 276-82

Note that under the broad topic Pollution, there are specific topics. The numbers in bold print immediately following the specific topic refers to the Volume Number and the numbers that follow refer to the pages on which that specific topic is found.

For instance, the specific topic Air Pollution is found in Volume 3 of the set and on pages 349-56 of Volume 8; and so on.

4) The index lists names of person alphabetically by their surnames.

For example, the page number for information on Robert Luis Stevenson should be looked up under Stevenson, Robert Luis.

5) Stories, poems, and other literary works are listed by the first word of their titles.

For examples, O Captain! My Captain! will be listed under O.

Exception: When the title of the literary work begins with an article, that literary work is listed under the beginning letter of its second word.


Titles of Literary Articles

                The Last Days of Pompeii

                A Tale of Two Cities

                An Apple for Teacher

How it is written in the Index

                Last Days of Pompeii, The

                Tale of Two Cities, A

                Apple for Teacher, An

Note that in the index, the article is written at the end of the title.

6) Note cross references. Cross references are directions for looking up information in other parts of the encyclopedia. This is marked by the remark “See” or “See also” which directs the reader to another subject for the information desired, or to an article with fuller information, or to articles on related subjects.