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The Context Paper

[for teachers of English 105 and 107;

supplement to the Freshman Composition Library Experience]

The main purpose of the context paper is to learn how to find basic or background information on a topic. Finding out general background information is an early step in determining a final topic for a research paper, which will have a more focused subject. Traditionally, this sort of information was found in ‘reference books’, and reference books were 1) print and 2) located in a library’s reference collection. This is now both true and untrue. For many students in freshman composition, this will be the first true assignment requiring use of the university library. For many, this will be the first time they use a library of any real size and, unfortunately, for some it will be the first time they have ever heard of a reference source. You may find that you have to address this on a more step-by-step process than you thought.

Defining ‘reference source’ Approaching the assignment Find ‘reference’ in the ISU Library Standard reference categories Role of the Librarian Additional Resources



There are several definitions of a reference source:

  • Library of Congress: "Any publication from which authoritative information can be obtained."
  • Reference and Users Services: "A work compiled specifically to supply information on a certain subject or group of subjects in a form which will facilitate its easy use."
  • American Library Association: "Any source used to obtain authoritative information in a reference transaction."
  • Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science: "Any publication used by a reference librarian to provide authoritative information in response to a reference question, including but not limited to reference books, catalog records, printed indexes and abstracting services, and online bibliographic databases."
  • As a professor, how do you define "reference sources" to your students?

    If the point of the Context Paper is for the student to become cognizant of the Reference section, why not designate certain types of sources the student must use? This would ensure the students become familiar with a variety of sources; rather than three or four from the "reference section." Approaching the assignment in this manner would give the student an opportunity to use a variety of sources to locate information.

    For example, if a student chose the Grand Canyon as the topic, what sources would be appropriate for use?

    The student could use encyclopedias (print, electronic) for general information on the Grand Canyon and an atlas or gazetteer to find geographical information. Using travel guides (Fodor’s) would provide additional information on sites to see within the Grand Canyon plus historical and current information on the Grand Canyon. Using the Internet to access U.S. government sites such as the National Park Service would provide additional information (do not forget print U.S. government sources). An additional source would be geological and/or geographical sources for information on the area. The above do not mention the general sources found in the stack areas of libraries. Some of these sources may not be considered "reference" sources, yet they are sources the students should be aware of and be able to use in a competent fashion to locate information.

    Do the students know why a source is considered a reference source?

    Perhaps initiating a discussion on what students consider a reference source would be valuable. Within the discussion, the professor could propose the above definitions for further discussion with the students.

    Students could be instructed to locate information (perhaps a variant on their topic if necessary) in the following sources:

    • Encyclopedias (paper, electronic, general, subject specific)
    • Atlases
    • Handbooks
    • Almanacs
    • Dictionaries

    Students could further be instructed (as the assignment progresses) to locate general information sources (commonly considered a book from the stacks); a source from an electronic journal, magazine or newspaper; an Internet source, etc… . This would be an excellent assignment to segue way into how to evaluate sources as to their content and value for an academic paper.


    • Create a list of sources, which the student must have as the paper progresses (electronic, Internet, dictionary, etc…). Have students add to that list. [see example below]
    • Develop a website with a list of sources which are defined as reference. Perhaps include a checklist with the characteristics of reference sources so the student can understand why a source is considered reference (encyclopedias, handbooks, etc…).
    • Students would probably benefit more from having a list of types of materials to use in locating information. If librarians cannot agree on one definition for reference sources (I know it when I see it), we may be expecting too much for the students to determine what a "reference source" is without any guidance. Rather, exposing them to several different sources with a criteria for evaluation and critical thinking skills would be much more beneficial to the students.



    • Assist in developing a source list for students to use.
    • Discuss why a reference source is considered a reference source and how to generally define a reference source.
    • Provide instruction on how to evaluate print and electronic sources.
    • Provide instruction on types of journals and magazines.
    • Provide instruction on how to find viable reference-level Internet sites.


    [teachers can copy and use]

    Source List




    Subject Specific: The encyclopedia deals with a single topic. Examples are a sports encyclopedia or a food encyclopedia.

    General: Encyclopedias cover a variety of information. Usually one letter of the alphabet for each volume.


    Subject Specific: May cover only a particular geographical feature (rivers, mountains) or a specific country.

    General: Cover every country.





    Subject Specific: Cover one subject (sports)

    General: Cover numerous aspects of information.




    Subject Specific: Deals with one subject (sports) or one language (Danish).




    General sources from the library stacks (the book collection)

    Magazine, journal and newspaper articles from print and electronic sources

    Internet sites: Could limit to government or other "official" sites for information. Use the Library's Internet Search Tools and Library Research Guides.



    Seven Steps of the Research Process
    The Flow of Information [part of tutorial; 10 pages]
    Finding Background Information

    Discuss your library instruction needs at any time with members of the Instruction Team. Additional resources for all teachers are available at our Resources for Teaching Faculty page.


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      Updated September 4, 2003     Maintained by: Reference/Instruction
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