What Are They?
Chances are you're familiar with general encyclopedias like World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica, which provide readers with an overview of a wide spectrum of topics. Subject-specific encyclopedias also provide overviews of topics, but focus instead on a particular subject or discipline.
Why Use Them?
Subject-specific encyclopedias are especially useful when you need to become familiar with aspects of a discipline. Paging through a subject-specific encyclopedia can help you discover or focus a topic for a research paper or project.
Subject-specific encyclopedias do not all follow the same format. They may have a single author or editor, or many. Entries may be brief or extensive. Some encyclopedias include author information and references at the end of entries, while others may not. It is a good idea to consult several subject-specific encyclopedias if available.
To Cite or Not to Cite?
For some assignments, subject-specific encyclopedias are acceptable sources to cite in your paper or presentation, while for other assignments your instructor may indicate that they are not acceptable sources. Even if you are not allowed to cite a subject-specific encyclopedia in your work, you can still consult one at the start of your research to give you background information and help you focus your topic.
Suppose you are writing a paper on baseball. You might consult a general encyclopedia for basic information on the game, but suppose you are focusing your paper on the role of superstitions in baseball. A general encyclopedia will have information on superstitions, but a subject-specific encyclopedia such as The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball (Marx Library Reference GV 862.3 .L54 1997) will provide an overview of common superstitions in baseball. From here, you could narrow your topic further to something like the curse of the Bambino. Believe it or not, you will be able to find books and scholarly articles on this topic.