Types of Sources

When we begin a new research project, we must first identify the types of reference sources that will include the data we are seeking and then determine specific titles within each type. Although we will likely be familiar with a few major general reference tools (see the list at the end of this section) or those important to a discipline we know well, we will want to consult a reputable guide to reference works. Thus, the resources evaluated in this Literary Research Guide are organized by types of reference works within chapters on resources that cover several national literatures, on genres, on national literatures, and on literature-related topics. Identifying specific resources requires an understanding of the kinds of information found in and uses associated with these types of works.

Guides to research methods offer essential introductions to the methods and tools associated with the kinds of research done within a discipline. Such works are especially important to scholars engaged in interdisciplinary projects.

Guides to reference works identify and (in the better ones) evaluate the handbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies of bibliographies, national bibliographies, surveys of research, bibliographic databases, review indexes, and other resources—print and electronic—important to research within a discipline. Once we have identified the kinds of reference sources we need to consult, we use guides to reference works (such as this Guide) to discover what specific works exist and to plan the order in which we will consult them. In other words, these are the essential first sources a scholar consults when planning how to approach a research topic.

Histories and surveys offer an overview of a national literature, period, genre, or topic and thus can offer an important orientation to an unfamiliar subject.

Literary handbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias are useful for finding brief biographies of authors; descriptions of literary characters; plot summaries; definitions of terms; and information about events, groups, places, and institutions of literary interest. They are meant for quick access to factual information.

Annals place a publication, person, or event within a chronological context and thus are essential to studying the intellectual milieu of a work.

Bibliographies of bibliographies are essential sources for identifying subject, title, genre, and author bibliographies; they are among the first resources a researcher consults when setting out to discover what primary and secondary works are related to a topic. Failing to identify an existing bibliography will result in replicating work already done.

Guides to primary works are essential sources for identifying what has been written by an individual or within a genre or literary form. Guides to collections identify institutions that hold significant collections built around an author, genre, or subject. Guides to manuscripts identify the locations of manuscript material. Guides to printed works, which record published works, include national bibliographies, which list documents printed within a country or region and thus are essential works for identifying editions of a work, investigating printing history, and re-creating the intellectual and cultural milieu of a work. Union catalogs, which record the holdings of several libraries, are indispensable for identifying and locating copies of editions and translations of almost any book; some also include manuscripts. Digital archives make accessible large numbers of documents and typically support keyword searching.

Guides to scholarship and criticism identify what has been written about an author, work, genre, form, or other literary topic. Surveys of research are important resources for keeping abreast of scholarship on a national literature, literary period, genre, or author. Over the long term, such surveys are valuable for tracing fluctuations in the academic reputation of an author, work, critical approach, or theory. Serial bibliographies, indexes, and abstracts (print and electronic) that are published or updated at regular intervals are important resources for literature and language scholars since they guide researchers to the most recent scholarship. At the first stage of a project, researchers should identify the pertinent serial bibliographies, indexes, and abstracts; become thoroughly familiar with their scope, limitations, taxonomy, and record structure; master the advanced search interface (especially any strategy that allows identification of records added since a previous search); and plan to search each at intervals. Abstracts collect and index summaries of published works and thus are valuable resources for identifying studies of an author or topic buried within a larger work or an obscurely-titled one and for making a preliminary decision about what books, articles, and dissertations to obtain. Book review indexes are essential tools for locating reviews of a book and tracing the critical reception of an author or work.

Biographical dictionaries offer basic information about the life, career, and accomplishments of individuals. Those that include living persons will sometimes provide an address or other contact information.

In addition to being able to identify specific titles of kinds of reference works, any scholar working in literatures in English should be familiar with the following:

  • Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature (C105).
  • The Oxford Classical Dictionary (C115).
  • WorldCat (E225).
  • Year’s Work in English Studies (G330).
  • MLA International Bibliography (G335).
  • Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature (G340).
  • Essay and General Literature Index (G380).
  • ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (H465).
  • MLA Directory of Periodicals (K615).
  • New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (L1230).
  • Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry (L1235).
  • Oxford Companion to English Literature (M1330).
  • Index of English Literary Manuscripts (M1365).
  • The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (M1385).
  • Oxford English Dictionary Online (M1410).
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (M1425).
  • Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature (Q3210).
  • Blanck, Jacob. Bibliography of American Literature (Q3250).
  • American Literary Scholarship (Q3265).
  • Dictionary of American Regional English (Q3350).
  • American National Biography Online (Q3378).