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Researching Literature and Libraries

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Researching Literature

Literary scholarship resembles other disciplines in many ways, and the general research strategies remain useful for English students. Remember that, like any other field, there is always growth and change as innovations in reading, historical discoveries, and technological advancements are made. When you research, try to gain an understanding of recent developments in the field.


The traditional depository of information, the library remains an essential part of any student’s research. Remember: the internet can take you only so far. These are some suggestions for entering the library with a literature paper in mind.

Other reserach resources can be found in the Research and Citation and the Internet Literacy areas on the Purdue OWL


The position of librarian requires great technical skill and significant learning. Knowing when to seek a librarian’s assistance is the mark of a wise student.

When to use: trouble with keyword searches, access to microfilm and microfiche, further research

Remember to bring: specific questions (A librarian will not do your research for you.)

Inter-Library Loan (ILL)

While most colleges and universities pride themselves in their book collections, the chances are great that at some point you will need a book from another library. Make yourself familiar with the inter-library loan system of your university as soon as possible and do not be hesitant to use it.

When to use: after searching a database (like the MLA), when your library has little or no scholarship on the author you’re reading.

Remember to bring: plenty of time (The turnaround is quick, but not instantaneous: something you may not have as a deadline approaches.)


Often held in a separate section of the library, literary journals are the headlines of scholarship in the field. This is where you’ll find the most recent work being done on your chosen text.

A list of important journals:

  • General: PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Book Reviews
  • Medieval: Florilegium, Medieval Studies, Studies in the Age of Chaucer
  • Renaissance: Shakespeare Quarterly, Renaissance Quarterly
  • Restoration and 18th Century: British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Eighteenth-Century Studies
  • 19th Century: Victorian Poetry, Nineteenth-Century Literature
  • 20th Century to Present: Modern Fiction Studies, Studies in Short Fiction
  • American Studies: American Literary History, American Literature, Sewanee Review


Literature often appears in various editions. This is doubly true for older and/or famous works. These various editions can provide further information and the library is a good place to examine them. Especially helpful if you can find them are the Norton Critical Editions of important texts which combine thorough annotation with a breadth of scholarly viewpoints.

When to use: reading a work in translation, reading a text that has multiple versions, reading a text that has been adapted for modern English.

Remember to bring: Note-taking tools. If you like the way a certain edition presents or translates a given text, you will need to cite it properly if you decide to use it in your paper.

Publication Catalogues, Dictionaries, and Encyclopedias

The Modern Language Association, along with several other groups, regularly publishes a catalogue of scholarship released in the preceding year. Several dictionaries and encyclopedias provide information specific to time periods, genres, and regions of history and literature. As long as you remember that these works are meant to provide general knowledge to facilitate further investigation, they are wonderful places to start.

Useful Dictionaries and Manuals:

  • A Handbook to Literature, (English majors should think seriously about purchasing this book.)
  • Literary Research Guide,
  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory
  • Topical Dictionaries (i.e. dictionaries focused on a specific time period or theme: The Middle English Dictionary for example.)

Useful Catalogues:

  • Golden Tree Bibliographies
  • The Year’s Work in English Studies
  • American Humanities Index

Useful Encyclopedias:

  • The Catholic Encyclopedia
  • The Encyclopedia of World Theater
  • The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
  • Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia
  • Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

Researching on the Internet

With every passing year, more and more tools for research in English become available online. Here are some of the most useful:

  • JSTOR: A collection of articles and essays in PDF format.
  • MLA Database: The primary research tool for finding literary scholarship. This site should be your first stop on the way to inter-library loan.
  • OED Online: The dictionary in searchable database form

A number of Purdue OWL resources will help you with research on the Internet.