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Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks are important sources of information. Use them for definitions and explanantions of key concepts of a topic. They can provide important background information such as the theoretical foundations and academic terminology for a topic.
They are a very good starting point for reseaching an essay topic.
Print format reference works are held in the Reference Collection of libraries; however, some are online (e.g., Artcyclopedia--see link below).
Be judicious in your use of free reference material on the internet. For example, Wikipedia is a collaborative online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute. Information in Wikipedia is not necessarily accurate nor authoritative. However, Wikipedia can be a starting point to identify keywords which relate to your research topic. Do not cite or reference Wikipedia in an essay.