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American History

Explore library resources related to U.S. history.

Background Information

Why should you search for background information?


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Basic facts:

The articles you read and cite in your paper will assume you already know the basic facts about your topic. Basic facts include the people, dates, places, and laws related to the topic. You need to know these facts before you read academic articles to ensure you know what the writers are talking about.

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Academic writing may use words and terms for a topic that are different from those we use every day. By researching the background of a topic, you'll learn which terms academic writers use to discuss your topic.


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Narrowing your topic:

Most students start off with a topic that's too big to cover in a five-page paper. By doing thorough background research, you can identify sub-topics that might be easier to work with.


Search for Background Information

You will typically use reference sources to gather background information about a topic. The following databases are great starting points.

Who What When Where

The 4 Ws

Guide yourself through your background research by answering the following four questions:

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Who are the people or groups relevant to your topic?  This can include companies or even fictional characters.

Example:  If you're writing about video games, this might include gamers, game designers, Hideo Kojima, Blizzard, or Nathan Drake.

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What are the major events, laws, controversies, or issues related to your topic?

Example:  If researching health care reform, this might include the Affordable Care Act, generic drug prices, or access to care.


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When have major events happened to affect your topic? This can include dates, eras, or even age ranges relevant to your topic.

Example:  If you're learning about medical marijuana, this might include 1970, or new legislation in the 2000s.


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Where are the places most affected by your topic? Which countries, regions, or states?  Does your topic affect urban or rural regions more? Is your topic related to something local: Greenville, Pitt County, Eastern North Carolina?

Example:  If researching the minimum wage debate, this might include places such as New York City, California, or urban centers.