Need to look up a name, place, term, or event? The sources below contain many different kinds of encyclopedias and dictionaries and are excellent starting points. Try them.
Take a look at these databases of encyclopedias, dictionaries, companions, and guides to find general overviews, quick facts, dates, and events, and sources for further study.
Britannica Online has carefully edited articles on all major topics. It fits the ideal purpose of a reference source as a place to get started -- or to refer back to as you read and write: articles written by easy-to-identify (or signed), credible authors that provide the academic community's most accepted facts and opinions about a topic. Most articles provide links or references to additional research.
You can generally cite these articles without your professor frowning on them as sources. Ask first: some faculty don't want you to cite from any encyclopedia. Why not? As a class or type of media encyclopedias are best suited to providing background information rather than in-depth or up-to-date scholarly analysis.
Wikipedia is "written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world" and relies on the collective wisdom of its volunteers to get the facts right and to balance the opinions expressed in the articles. It can be very useful as a starting point for many topics, especially obscure ones with special or passing popular interest.
Some Temple University faculty instruct their students not to use Wikipedia as a source because of the volunteer approach to editing, which can be unreliable at times. So, to be safe, think of Wikipedia more as a place to get started, but move on from Wikipedia to works with an identifiable author from a traditionally edited encyclopedia or other published reference work. An interesting compromise between traditional encyclopedias and Wikis is Citizendium.
Substantive Source: Rick Lezenby