Tip of the Week: Use a Subject Encyclopedia for Background Information and More
A subject encyclopedia is just what its name suggests: a book of basic factual information about a single subject. Some subject encyclopedias, such as Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, cover broad subjects while others, such as The Poe Encyclopedia, focus on much narrower subjects. The reference section of a good-sized library might contain hundreds or even thousands of subject encyclopedias on every subject you can imagine, and many of these reference sources are available online. Of course, you can find millions of facts online, so why should you bother consulting the printed or online version of a subject encyclopedia? The truth is, if you are looking for something simple–the date of the Boston Massacre, for example, or the role of the amygdala in the human brain–you often won’t need a subject encyclopedia (although you certainly could find such information in one).
Subject encyclopedias are most useful when you need an overview, background information, a bibliography, or hard-to-find details, especially when the subject is really narrow, not widely known, or just hard to capture in some key words. For example, if you wanted to know what spelling was like in Middle English, you could google “Middle English spelling” and find some webpages, but you might land in the middle of an explanation with no introduction or find some notes without much explanation. If you went to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, on the other hand, you would find a concise, straightforward overview with lots of examples. In short, instead of trying to piece together little bits of information, you could read a single page and know the basics of Middle English spelling. There’s another advantage. Unlike many online sources, such as wikipedia, subject encyclopedias published by reputable publishers such as Gale and Cambridge University Press have expert editors who work to ensure that the information is accurate and relevant. Sometimes they write the information themselves, and other times they edit material written by other experts. (For example, I have written entries on Edgar Allan Poe, Benjamin Franklin, and other subjects in my field for various subject encyclopedias). The overview of Middle English spelling in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, for example, was written by the pre-eminent linguist David Crystal.
For these reasons, I frequently consult subject encyclopedias, either printed or online versions, to find information. I feel that I can find it faster and experience less stress this way because I can go right to what I need (without wading through incomplete or confusing webpages). The next time you want to understand the history of the Second Amendment or the phenomenon of mob mentality, check out a subject encyclopedia. I think you will be glad you did.