Question: Why should I first consult a reference work? Would a Georgetown scholar or researcher bother to consult a scholarly encyclopedia?
Answer: Encyclopedias are two-steps removed from the primary historical evidence, or letters, diaries, oral histories, and other first-hand accounts of history. Encyclopedia articles, dictionaries, and other reference sources help researchers and students like you to contextualize their topics and in turn begin to ask the right historical questions.
After all, you cannot elicit relevant search results from library databases if you don't know which keywords (or search terms) to use. Also, you may find that there are many articles in scholarly encyclopedias, in particular, that contain bibliographies that will lead you to the most respected secondary and important primary sources on your topic. Browsing a good encyclopedia can even help you to choose and/or refine your research topic. In short, reference works are a great way to begin any research project.