English Literature Research Guide
The following is intended as a general guide to research in literature.
For a list of some of the resources available for the study of literature, please see our literature research guides. For information on specific topics within literature, please see our other English course research guides.
The CUNY Catalog is where we list all the books in our collection, along with many other resources we provide.
Criticism of an author or work
You can use “Subject begins with…” to search for books on a particular author or work. To do this, search for the author's name, putting the surname first. The list of subheadings will tell you what books on that author are about.
You will often find subheading such as “dictionaries and encyclopedias,” “criticism and interpretation,” or subheadings mentioning the name of a specific work or a character. For instance, let's say you searched for Dickens, Charles. Your results would look something like this:
- Dickens, Charles. 1812-1870. Bleak House.
- Dickens, Charles. 1812-1870 -- Characters.
- Dickens, Charles. 1812-1870 -- Characters -- Children.
- Dickens, Charles. 1812-1870 -- Criticism and Interpretation.
- Dickens, Charles. 1812-1870 -- Encyclopedias.
Each of these headings includes books on that specific topic.
If you want to search for a specific topic or type of book about an author, you might also consider using the Advanced Search. There, you can use a subject search to find books about a particular author, and a keyword search to look for a topic within that author. This works very well for authors (like Dickens!) for whom there is a very large body of criticism.
Information on a theme
If you are looking for books on a topic rather than a particular author or work, an “All Fields” search (that is, a keyword search) is a good place to start. For example, you might search for “terror and literature.” Scan the results to see if any of them are relevant to what you are looking for.
When you have found a relevant book, check the subject headings to find out what your topic is called in the subject heading system. Keep an eye out for subject headings that reference the relationship between your topic and literature, such as:
- Art and literature
- Consciousness in literature
- Detectives in literature
- Ideology and literature
- Law and literature
- Literature and history
- Literature and medicine
- Magic in literature
- Manners and customs in literature
- Motion pictures and literature
- Other (Philosophy) in literature
- Politics and literature
- Race in literature
- Social classes in literature
- Venice (Italy) -- In literature
- Women in literature
These are just a few examples of subject headings of this type. They indicate books that cover the intersection between literature and some broad topic.
If you are interested in books about a genre of literature, those headings exist as well. There are of course headings for the usual suspects—poetry, fiction and drama—but there are also more specific (and often more useful) headings:
- Biography as a literary form
- Epic literature
- Science fiction
You can search our collection at Queens College, or any other CUNY library, or all of them together. Choose with the Select Library menu. Use the Title Request feature to send books here from other CUNY libraries.
Specific types of resources
See the English Literature Guide for information about types of works available in the library. Particular attention is paid to reference sources.
Browse the Shelves
If you find a good book in the catalog, look at the books that are near it on the shelf. You may find something else of interest. While this is a good strategy in most disciplines, it's especially good for literature, because all the groups on a given author are grouped together.
Reference books will be on Level 3, while most other books will be on Level 5.
Books on literature are typically shelved under headings beginning with P. PR is used for British literature and PS for American. Within that range, books are arranged roughly by the time period they cover; books on Beowulf come before books on Blake. Within time periods, they are arranged alphabetically, based on the author in question—that is, their author, in the case of primary texts, or the author of the works they cover, in the case of secondary works. Thus, books by and about Blake will be earlier in that range than works by and about Wordsworth.
Books outside Queens College
When you are searching in the CUNY Catalog you can select “All CUNY Libraries” instead of “Queens College” to search across CUNY. If you see a book you want, use the “Request Item” button to have it sent here.
If you'd like to search outside of Queens College, you can use WorldCat to search libraries across the United States, and some outside of it. Many of the same search strategies I've recommended for the CUNY Catalog also work very well in WorldCat. If you want to use a book you find it WorldCat, you can order it through Interlibrary Loan.
Start your search for articles at our databases list. Once you are there, you can select the subject that you are searching from the menu in the middle of the page (in this case, English). For general database searching tips, see this library tutorial. For more specific information, please see below.
The MLA International Bibliography is the most comprehensive database of quality scholarly articles in literature and related fields, so it's an excellent place to start. Additionally, it is designed specifically for this type of searching, so you can more easily tailor your search to its desired results.
Here are some of the searches you will often do in MLA:
- Name of Work
- Allows you to search for criticism of particular literary works (e.g. Beloved)
- Does not always work for poems, short stories or very old works
- Allows you to search for criticism on the works of an author (e.g. Jane Austen)
- Good for the works that don't show up in a “Name of Work” search
- Also useful for comparisons among works by the same author, or interviews with authors
- Use this along with a work or author search to narrow your search based on themes or topics.
- Thus, if you were interested in the portrayal of childhood in Blake, you'd search for his name on one line, and on another line, you might do a search like this:
child* OR adult* OR age OR time OR play
There are some other searches which you may want to explore, including National Literature, and of course the standard author and title fields, which let you look for the author or title of the work of criticism rather than the work under consideration.
I have used OR and * in the example above.
OR, in this case, means that your search will return all records containing at least one of the words you are searching for on that line. In our example, that would include the word “age”, the word “time”, any other word listed, or all of them together.
The asterisk means that I am interested in any word that starts with the letters before that symbol. So, my search would find any reference to child, children, childhood, childish, or, unfortunately, Childe Harold. See the explanation below for more information on searching.
MLA allows you to limit your search to items that have particular characteristics. These are some of the options are available on the Advanced Search Screen.
- Date range searching
- Limits to a particular type of item (e.g. articles only, or no dissertation abstracts)
- Specific language searching (e.g. English only)
I particularly recommend excluding dissertation abstracts, since dissertations are quite difficult to obtain.
Don't expect to find all the articles you need with a single search. You will need to look at your results to garner new keywords, and try to think of different ways of expressing your topic. For instance, although genre and the novel are clearly closely related topics, not all articles indexed under one term will be included under the other. Examine the subject headings to see if you are missing any useful terms, and try to think of similar ideas.
MLA has many virtues, but it does not include any full text. The Find It button appears near each record, and you can use it to get full text. See the guide to getting full text if you need help.
Although they are independent of each other, these discussed together here because they are both full-text journal collections, and you'll use similar strategies in each.
- Both allow full-text searching, but it can be difficult to limit your search.
- Multidisciplinary—both databases include material in all fields. JSTOR is especially strong in literature and history, while Project Muse covers the humanities and social sciences broadly, but is smaller overall.
- In both databases, you can select a general subject area before searching to cut down on irrelevant results.
- Articles do not show up in JSTOR until 3–5 years after publication.
- Since you are searching full-text, you will probably need to add more search terms to narrow down your search.
- These databases have little overlap with each other, but a great deal of overlap with MLA.
- Humanities Full Text
- Citations to articles in general and specialized journals from across the humanities. Includes less material than JSTOR or Project Muse, but more items that are not found in MLA. It is particularly useful for book reviews.
- Literature Criticism Online
- This is a digitized book series which collects excerpts from the criticism of works you can look up here. It's a good way of getting an idea of what the conversation around a work or an author is like, and it can often let you know which articles are the most important.
It's often a good place to search for reviews, if you need them. It also works well for contemporary authors, who are often not covered elsewhere.
- Literature Resource Center
- Generally less scholarly than MLA, but it does include interviews, reviews and other materials which can be very useful, especially if you are working with contemporary authors.
- Gale Virtual Reference Library
- A collection of subject-specific encyclopedias that you can search all at once. Great for those times when a work deals with some unfamiliar subject matter and you need background material.
- Magill on Literature Plus
- A collection of brief summaries and critical overviews of a wide range of works.
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Please see the OED for etymology and comprehensive definitions of words.
- Other Reference Works
- Please see the Resource Guide for more information on finding particular types of reference works, both print and electronic.
- Biography Reference Bank
- Biographies from a variety of sources, plus some criticism.
- Biography Reference Center
- Includes biographies from many of the same sources as Magill, plus some others.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography
- Collection of short biographies of authors. You may also browse this resource in print on Level 3.
- Twayne's Authors Online
- Includes in-depth introductions to the lives and works of writers, the history and influence of literary movements and to the development of literary genres.
- Print Biographies
- You can find print biographies in the CUNY Catalog by searching for the name of the author of interest and looking for the subheading “biography”
MLA International Bibliography never includes full text, and some other databases might have it sometimes but not always. To get the full text of an article, you may need to use Find It. When you click on the Find It box, here are some options you may see:
- Full Text Online
- Click the link. Sometimes you may need to browse to the appropriate volume and issue.
- CUNY has a copy
- The article is in print somewhere in CUNY. The link will take you to the record in the CUNY Catalog.
- Remember to check whether it is a book or journal article.
- If it is a journal article, check holdings information to make sure we have the volume and issue you want.
- If it is a book and it is held in another CUNY, choose Request Title to have it sent here.
- Request Item via Interlibrary Loan
- We don't have it, but we can get it for you. You will be giving a request form. Most information will be filled in automatically, but you will need to add the year.
- You need to sign up for an account first.
- Arrival time is between two days and two weeks.
- Go to Google Books
- Click to see the book article in Google Books. Keep in mind that this usually will NOT get you the entire book!
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed.
- Stacks (Call # A-L Level 4; Call # P-Z Level 5) - LB2369 .G53 2009
- Reference Level 3 - LB2369 .G53 2009
Online MLA Formatting and Style Guide from the OWL at Purdue
RefWorks is a database for research management, writing, and collaboration. Users can create a personalized profile to create, gather, manage, store, and share citations regardless of original format. Citation lists and bibliographies can be generated using many standard citation formats, including MLA. A code is needed to access RefWorks from home—please ask at the Library Research Office (RO 339).
If you use Firefox, you may also want to check out Zotero, a citation manager that works directly from your browser.