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Encyclopedias are great ways to get background information and understand the terms used to describe some topics. For a comprehensive listing of encyclopedias, see the Dictionaries/Encyclopedias page.
Oxford English Dictionary
Considered the most authoritative and comprehensive English language dictionary in the world. Includes information on the English language, its history, and the social, cultural, and political influences that have shaped the language through the centuries
Oxford Reference Online
Full-text of more than 100 dictionaries and reference books published by Oxford University Press
While it is not advisable to use this as a source in an academic paper, it can sometimes LEAD you to other great sources, especially on contemporary topics.
Online Encyclopedias available at Princeton
We have many specialized encyclopedias covering just about every field. This links to one list, and others might be found in the Subject pages for Articles and Databases.