Jessup Playbooks Logo

How do I use books to find background information?


Profile Photo
L Skinner

Need Help?

Ask a Librarian @
Betty Sue Jessup Library

501 College Drive
Charlottesville, VA 22902

Books as Sources of Background Information

              book pile              Books are excellent sources of background information on a topic, and the good news is that at the undergrad level you don't have to read the whole book!  But remember, don't just skim looking for quotes and anecdotes. Read actively, and when you find a useful section, read the whole section to make sure you understand the information and its context.

Books contain authoritative topic information, such as:

  • topic overviews
  • expert opinions
  • data
  • statistics
  • analysis of current research


Example: You are writing about a hurricane that happened this month. Books will not have information about the hurricane that just happened, but don't let that discourage you, because they will have a lot of information and data about hurricanes in general. That information can help you write the introduction to your paper, or flesh out other sections.


Finding Books: Library Catalog

Your first step should be to use the library catalog to see what books the library owns that may help you get an overview of your topic.

To search the catalog, go to the library's home page and use the search box in the section titled FIND BOOKS. You have the option to search by keyword, title, author, and subject.

  • keyword searches will retrieve the most results, but not all of them will be relevant.
  • title searches can be full titles (catcher in the rye), or words that might appear on titles (migraine treatments), and will retrieve only books that contain the words you typed in
  • author searches can be full names (Ray Bradbury) or part of a name (Hemingway), and will retrieve books whose titles contain the word or words you have typed in
  • subject searches will retrieve books about the subjects you typed, for example, migraines, climate change, college success.

Finding Books: Specific Collections

Another way to find books to use as background information is to explore book collections. The library has some collections of books that are specifically written to provide background information.  See the linked databases below.

Finding Books: Interlibrary Loan

         interlibrary loan image                   If the library doesn't own a book you want, you can use the Interlibrary Loan system to request it. Interlibrary loan means libraries sharing materials they own, so you are not limited by the size of a library's collection.

To use the interlibrary loan system, go to the library's home page, and click the Interlibrary Loan Request link. This form is used to request materials that you can't find in our  library. Fill out the form with all the required information, submit it, and the library will request the materials from another library. You will get an email with the materials are available for you to pick up or to download.

How to Read Books for Background Information

     student reading a book








If you are conducting research for undergrad courses, you can limit your book reading. If/when you go to graduate school, know that it is expected you will read the entire book.

  • Begin by making a list of keywords, that is, words that are directly related to your topic. For example, if you're writing about student success in community colleges, some of your words would be "student success," and "community college."
  • Check the index.  The index appears at the end of the book and consists of a list of keywords and page numbers.  Scan the index to find the keywords from your list and other useful keywords. You can then go to the specific pages your keywords appear and read the information there.
  • Scan the table of contents. The table of contents will help you narrow down what parts of the book you may need, so you can go to specific chapters directly.
  • Scan the chapters you picked. Read the introduction to the chapter, then read the conclusion. This will give you an idea whether the chapter is really useful for what you need it for. 


  • Stay organized. Keep track of the information you're finding, so you can find it later when you write your paper.          tip                    Copy quotes into a file and write down the title of the book you got them from, plus the page number.
  • CiteCite the books as you go along and keep the citations in a file. This will save you time and headaches later.
  • Ask for help. Avoid frustration by asking for help from your instructor or a librarian.

Need Help?