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ELISE | Informing your studies tutorial: Subject dictionaries, encyclopedias and thesauri


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Oxford Reference Online

A range of subject encyclopedias are available in Oxford Reference Online.   

Why use subject dictionaries and encyclopedias?

Dictionaries and encyclopedias are useful places to begin your research if you are unfamiliar with terms or concepts in your question or assessment.

Subject dictionaries can help you find:

  • definitions of key concepts
  • how a term is used in your specific subject area
  • technical terms
  • historical uses of words
  • alternative subject terms for database searching

Encyclopedias can help you find:

  • broad overviews of an unfamiliar or complex topic
  • background information on a topic
  • lists of references on a topic


Search for dictionaries and encyclopedias on your topic in the Library collection:

Tip  e.g. for a definition of fascism, search using a broader subject term such as politics dictionaries

Searching for dictionar* will pick up both dictionary and dictionaries.

For broad definitions you can access an English language dictionary such as Oxford English Dictionary or Macquarie dictionary.

You can also find subject-specific resources, for example Legal encyclopedias and dictionaries and Australian Indigenous language dictionaries.

Foreign language dictionaries

The Library collection includes many foreign language dictionaries.

Search for foreign language dictionaries in the Library collection:

Tip  e.g. for a French English dictionary, search for french dictionar*

See the Languages & linguistics subject guide for dictionaries and other resources in foreign languages.

What is a thesaurus?

A thesaurus is a list of synonyms, often displaying broader terms, narrower terms, related terms and antonyms. For example the entry for environment in includes a large range of related terms as well as examples of how to use environment in a sentence and synonyms for different meanings of the word environment. 

Many Library databases include a thesaurus.

Tip  Search for your keywords in the thesaurus to find more effective search terms as well as broader and narrower terms. This is particularly useful if the terms you are using in your search are not retrieving suitable resources.

Tip  Using a thesaurus can also help identify synonyms and spelling used in the database.