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Writing About Literature: A Guide to Research

This guide discusses library resources and research techniques which will assist students in studying and writing about literature. It is especially designed to help undergraduates meet their composition requirements, but we hope it also will aid others doing literary research in Wilson Library. The sources covered include works useful for the study of literature in general and for the study of American and English literature in particular.

Table of Contents:

Introduction: Reading About Literature

Before beginning research on any literary topic it is important to analyze exactly what it is you need to know:

  1. Do you need biographical information, critical studies, historical background, book reviews, definitions, quotations, or to locate a story or a poem in a collection?

  2. If you need critical or biographical or historical information, should it be in the form of a) brief summaries (such as you might find in a literary encyclopedia or handbook); b) articles in books and periodicals; or, c) in book-length studies? And how important is it that the information be current?

  3. Will the nationality, period, or genre of your subject affect the particular library resources you should use?

Once you have answered such questions, a glance at the table of contents for this guide should suggest the appropriate section(s) to which you should turn. Then a quick survey of the annotations for each work included will lead you to the best sources to use.



Finding Books on Your Topic in the Library Catalog (MNCAT)

The library catalog is an extremely important reference source and could thus be the first point of access to the materials you need. The University Library's computer catalog is called MNCAT. It identifies materials in all of the Twin Cities Campus Libraries. MNCAT can be searched by author, title, subject, or keywords.

We provide two interfaces to MNCAT, telnet, and web versions. The instructions below apply to searching both versions. Notice that the MNCAT Web has the default search by title, so you select author, subject, or keyword rather than type a code such as a=.

MNCAT is one of the databases we provide through LUMINA, the gateway to other electronic information we lease or own.

Find an author of a book by typing, for example:

a=hemingway ernest
Find a title by typing, for example:
t=bell jar
  • Searching by Subject

    Any literary subject which interests you--an author, a period, a movement, a genre--will probably be accessible through the subject headings in MNCAT.

  • Author by Subject

    All of the works of an author that the library has are, of course, listed under the author's name. And if the author or the author's works have been the subject of book-length studies, these, too, are listed under the author's name (as a subject). For example, type s=austen jane. MNCAT will display an alphabetical list of sub-headings for books about Jane Austen. You then easily can find a bibliography, biographies, criticism, or other types of books on the author. Below is an example of a book found by typing: a=austen jane--criticism and interpretation

    Thompson, James

    Between self and world : the novels of Jane Austen. University Park : Pennsylvania State University Press, c1988.
  • Other Subjects

    In addition to subject headings for specific authors, some subject headings deal with a more general topic, for example, a literary period. Below is an example of a title found by typing: s=english literature--early modern, 1500-1700--history and criticism

    Anderson, Judith H.

    Biographical truth : the representation of historical persons in Tudor-Stuart writing. Judith H. Anderson. New Haven : Yale University Press, c1984.

    or, a literary genre or form. Below is an example of a title found by typing: s=poetry

    The Victorian poet : poetics and persona. Edited by Joseph Bristow. -- London : Croom Helm, c1987.

    To find out exactly what subject headings are used on your topic, see the Library of Congress Subject Headings (4 volumes) located near the Reference/Information Desk. They will tell you under which heading(s) a given subject is listed as well as other headings under which related subjects may be found.

  • Searching by Keyword

    A keyword is a single word found anywhere in the bibliographic record, including author, title, subject heading, publisher, place of publication, and other data. Searching by keyword is most useful if you have incomplete information, or if there is no appropriate subject heading. For example, if you can't remember the exact title of a book you are looking for, search by the words you know. Thus you could type k=tangerine to find the title The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby, by Tom Wolfe. More information on keyword searching is available in the handout entitled "Keyword Searching," or by typing exp k to see the "Explain Keyword Searching Menu."

    (Additional handouts with more information on MNCAT are also available near the Information Desk on the first floor.)

  • Classification Systems

    Books received since 1984 have been classified with the Library of Congress (LC) system. Previously classified materials in the general collection retain their Dewey Decimal numbers. Thus we have separate shelving locations. Literature books with Dewey Decimal numbers, i.e., numbers in the 800's, are on the third floor. Books with LC numbers, i.e., those beginning with P, PN, PR, PS, are on the second floor. Notice that larger-size books--quartos and folios--are shelved in separate sections.

Using Online Databases and the Internet

The University Libraries provide access--for students, faculty, and staff--to many remote databases, through the LUMINA terminals. Two large bibliographic databases supplement MNCAT and allow you to identify books, periodicals (but not articles in periodicals), recordings, and other materials held by other libraries. Listed under "OTHER" on the LUMINA menu, OCLC's WorldCat allows you to locate books, periodicals, and other materials through 35 million records from 17,000 libraries, and RLIN/Eureka's Bibliographic File provides information on 22 million books and other items in 100 major research libraries.

Choosing the INDEXES option, and then the Arts and Humanities group, will provide access to articles and other sources listed in the MLA International Bibliography (#36 below) and the Arts & Humanities Citation Index (#43 below).

Some computerized databases may require you to provide your student e-mail password.

Instructions on the computer screens will help you to find and interpret data. Handouts near the Reference Desk also explain how to search these files.

  • The Internet as a Research Tool

    You will soon discover, if you have not already, that the Internet offers rich, challenging and ever changing resources. You may begin at the University Libraries home page for English and American Literature and check the section "English Departments, Specialist Librarians, Centers." Some internet version of print reference tools are linked through servers listed in that section. Internet sources are also identified in the citations to print sources listed (above-below). This guide itself is available at that site, and the URLs function as live links.

Finding Critical Studies through Subject Bibliographies

A subject bibliography is a list of books (and often articles) devoted to a specific topic--English literature, the English romantic poets, or John Keats. Such bibliographies, whether comprehensive or selective, can be extremely useful to you in identifying what has been written on a topic. Many of them have brief descriptive and/or evaluative notes (annotations) which can be of further help in selecting the best sources for your research. Subject bibliographies, like those discussed below, often appear as separately published books, but they are also found in periodicals, encyclopedias and other compendia, and as parts of books on a topic.

  • Retrospective Bibliographies

    The following bibliographies are invaluable for identifying critical studies of authors. Because they list, in one handy source, critiques written over many years, they can save you a lot of time. Most of them also offer the convenience of grouping these critical studies under each author's specific works--thus enabling you to quickly find, for example, what has been written on John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," without having to pore over critiques on Keats' other works.

  • Index
  • General
    • Bibliography of Comparative Literature
      This bibliography lists books and articles about the inter-relationships of countries, writers, and works. Arranged by period, country, theme, and author, it is valuable for the study of the relationship of various intellectual movements (German idealism and English romanticism, for example) and for the influence of one writer on another.
      • Location(s): Wilson Reference PN871 .B3x 1960
      • Check MNCAT Record for Location and Availability http://prime2.oit.umn.edu:1701/primo_library/libweb/action/display.do?fn=display&vid=TWINCITIES&doc=umn_aleph002081881
    • Contemporary Literary Criticism
      Contains excerpts from criticism of the work of authors now living or who have died since 1960. Deals with solidly "literary" writers as well as with "popular" writers such as Heinlein, Christie and Brautigan. Later volumes cover filmmakers and directors, too. Necessarily superficial, but useful for a critical overview of the writers covered.
      • Location(s): Wilson Reference PN771 .C59
      • Check MNCAT Record for Location and Availability http://prime2.oit.umn.edu:1701/primo_library/libweb/action/display.do?fn=display&vid=TWINCITIES&doc=umn_aleph001419150
  • Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Drama
  • Annual Bibliographies for Current or Comprehensive Listings
    Annual bibliographies are especially valuable in supplementing older, retrospective bibliographies (such as those found above) and for making comprehensive searches on a topic or writer.
    • MLA International Bibliography
      http://www.lib.umn.edu/get/3157
      The MLA International Bibliography is a classified listing and subject index of scholarly books and articles on modern languages, literatures, folklore, and linguistics which has been compiled by the Modern Language Association of America since 1926.
  • Individual Author Bibliographies

    If you are looking for extensive critical studies on an author it will worth checking to see if an individual author bibliography exists. Keep in mind that some of these bibliographies will list only works by the author, some will list only works about the author, and others will do both. Individual author bibliographies can be found by looking in MNCAT under the author's name as a subject--e.g., s=angelou maya--bibliography--and by consulting the sources listed below.

  • Finding Specialized Bibliographies on Your Topic

    1. Look in MNCAT under the appropriate subject heading(s) for your topic (see II for information on how to find subject headings) and then under "Bibliography" as a sub-heading--e.g., s=romanticism--england--bibliography.

    2. Or, look under your subject in one of the following bibliographies of bibliographies:

Finding Periodical Articles for Literary Research

The term periodical refers to any publication that appears at regular intervals (although customarily not to newspapers). A periodical may be either a general magazine such as Time, or a scholarly journal such as Studies in Short Fiction. Scholarly journals will be especially valuable sources for scholarship on your topic.

  • Indexes: The Keys to Using Periodicals

    Our term index is derived from the Latin "indicare" which means to "point out." Thus a periodical index points out--usually by means of both author and subject headings--the specific periodical in which the article appears, along with the volume, pages and date of the issue. Some indexes include abstracts, or brief summaries of the principal ideas of an article (or book). They may help you to decide whether you want to find and read the entire article described.

    At times some elements of the information given will be in a different order. The periodical title will often be abbreviated, as it is in the example on the previous page. A key to the abbreviations used is usually included in the front or back of the index (or bibliography). A good general guide to abbreviations of periodical titles is Periodical Title Abbreviations, 3 vols. 10th ed. (Wilson Reference AP1 .A44x 1996 Desk)

  • Deciding Which Index to Use

    Your own assessment of your needs can help you in deciding what kind of periodical index to use: Is this a subject which you know relatively little about? Are you just beginning your search for periodical articles? Are you just now in the process of narrowing or choosing a topic? Are you working on a topic which spans more than one field of study? Do you need information from a period of time not covered by other sources? If your answer to any of these questions is "yes," you will probably do best to start with a periodical index with broad coverage, such as the Humanities Index. Are you looking for specialized information in a field of study with which you already have some acquaintance? Have you already used a general index but need still more information? Then you may want to try a more specialized source such as a bibliography or a more narrowly focused index such as the Wellesley Index.

    Are you trying to be as thorough as possible in your search for information? Is your subject one which doesn't turn up readily in other indexes? Are you interested in following the influence of a certain scholar? Then you may want to turn to the Arts & Humanities Citation Index in your search.

    The following indexes, located in the Reference Room, are among the most useful in doing literary research:

    • America: History and Life
      http://www.lib.umn.edu/get/3167
      This index provides historical coverage of the United States and Canada from prehistory to the present with over 2,000 journals including all key English-language historical journals.
    • Arts & Humanities Citation Index (included in Web of Science)
      http://www.lib.umn.edu/get/3050
      Note: A&HCI is no longer searchable as a separate index.
      (1) Start by clicking on this link, which takes you to the Web of Science main page.
      (2) In the search box enter one or more key words.
      (3) On the next page, under Research Domains, select Arts and Humanities to limit your results.
      (4) Hints: Your choice of words can influence the results. For example, "hydraulic fracturing" will favor science-journal articles; "fracking" will retrieve more articles in humanities and social-science journals.
    • Humanities Index
      Subscription cancelled 2003
      [Resource no longer available]
  • Locating Periodicals in the Library

    In Wilson Library most periodicals are shelved in the Periodicals/Reserve Room, in the basement of the Library. Most are available in regular paper format, but some are on microfilm or microfiche. The latest issues of current periodicals are shelved to your left as you enter the room while the older, bound volumes are shelved around the periphery of the room--both are in alphabetical order by title. Those on microfilm or microfiche are kept in boxes or cabinets in the room.

    Notice that when you find a citation to a periodical article through indexes in LUMINA, the record indicates "Your library (MNU) owns this item."

Finding Biographical Information

Biographies may appear as separately published books, as articles in periodicals, or as entries in biographical dictionaries and directories. The amount of biographical information you need--a book-length study or a brief sketch--will determine the best approach for you to take.

  • Book-Length Study

    Separately published biographies of an author may be found by looking in MNCAT under the author's name (as SUBJECT). Recent biographies will be found under the author's name (as SUBJECT) followed by the subheading BIOGRAPHY. For example:

    s=hemingway ernest

    or

    s=hemingway ernest--biography

  • Brief Sketch

    For brief information about an author, or when no book exists, a biographical dictionary or directory will often provide a summary of an author's life and work. Because many dictionaries and directories are devoted to authors, several indexes have recently been published which will lead you to the specific biographical sources in which biographical information on a given author can be found.

    Below are listed some of the major reference works which give biographical information about authors, as well as indexes which provide access to them and to many other biographical sources. Note, also, the entry for Biography Index, a valuable source for finding biographical articles in periodicals.

    • The Dictionary of Literary Biography
      Systematically presents career biographies and criticism of writers from all eras and all genres through volumes dedicated to specific types of literature and time periods. 330 volumes. TC Wilson Library Reference Quarto PS21 .D55x
  • Biographical Indexes
  • Encyclopedic Surveys
    • Dictionary of Literary Biography [print edition]
      A uniquely valuable resource that provides biographical and extensive bibliographical background information on important literary figures. Use the index in the latest volume.
      • Location(s): Wilson Reference Quarto PS21 .D55x
  • Biographical Dictionaries and Directories
    • Contemporary Authors Online
      http://www.lib.umn.edu/get/2370
      A bio-bibliographical guide to current writers in fiction, general nonfiction, poetry, journalism, drama, motion pictures, television, and other fields. Provides complete biographical and bibliographical references for more than 100,000 authors in the U.S. and around the world.
Finding Other Factual Information
The following sources can save you considerable time and effort in finding information on a literary topic:
  • Literary Terms and Concepts

    Specialized encyclopedias and handbooks such as those cited below provide brief explanations of literary terms as well as capsule histories of particular literatures and movements and bio-critical information on well-known authors.

  • Fictional Characters
    Below are examples of useful sources for identifying fictional characters from literary works of all cultures and periods.
    • Dent Dictionary of Fictional Characters
      Brief identifications of about 15,000 characters from novels, plays, and short stories. nb-- This is a revised edition of a work previously published as Dictionary of Fictional Characters, by William Freeman, 1963, and subsequently as Everyman's Dictionary of Fictional Characters, by Fred Urquhart, 1973, both of which are in WILSON circulating stacks. Each edition dropped some characters and added others.
      • Location(s): Wilson Reference PN56.4 .S495x 1991
      • Check MNCAT Record for Location and Availability http://prime2.oit.umn.edu:1701/primo_library/libweb/action/display.do?fn=display&vid=TWINCITIES&doc=umn_aleph001733098
  • Quotations

    The following are among the most useful compendia for identifying the source of a literary quote or for discovering notable quotations on a topic.All three of these volumes provide well-known quotations from all periods and cultures. Their arrangements vary: Bartlett (chronological); Oxford (by author); Home Books (by subject). Each has supplementary key-word and other indexes.
  • Words

    The following general DICTIONARIES and THESAURI provide information on most of the words in the English language--similar sources exist for other major languages.
    • Oxford English Dictionary
      http://primo.lib.umn.edu/TWINCITIES:UMN_ALMA21467757170001701
      • Location(s): WILSON Reference Folio PE1625 .O87 1989 vol. 1-20
      Location: WALTER Reference Folio PE1625 .O87 1989 vol. 1-20
      Location: MAGRATH Reference (Legal) Folio PE1625 .O87 1989 vol. 1-20
      Location: BIOMED Reference oversize PE1625 .O98 1989 vol. 1-20
    • Roget's II: The New Thesaurus (via Bartleby.com)
      http://www.bartleby.com/110/
      The online version of Roget's II contains 35,000 synonyms and over 250,000 cross-references in an easy-to-use format. Features of the thesaurus include succinct word definitions and an innovative hyperlinked category index, which leads you to list of antonyms for the word you select.
Finding Book Reviews

The basic things you need to know to search for a book review are:

  1. The author of the book and its original title.

  2. The date of the book's initial publication (see I. above on how to find publication dates in the catalogs). If the book has appeared in more than one edition it is sometimes helpful to know the dates of later editions.

  • Basic Guides to Reviews

    The works discussed below are some of the most useful sources for locating reviews, the majority of which appear in periodicals.* The annotations for each of them will help you to decide which ones to use based on the years covered and on the types of periodicals included.

    In using these sources to find a review begin by looking under the author's name in the volume for the year in which your book was published. Then check the volumes for the next few years following the date of publication. Scholarly books in particular tend to be reviewed a considerable time after their original publication date. The citations in book review sources are similar to those used in other periodical indexes (see IV for explanation).

    • Book Review Index Online Plus
      http://www.lib.umn.edu/get/6159
      Includes more than five million review citations from over 5,800 books and periodicals, with linking to more than 630,000 full-text reviews.
      • Location(s): Print version available at Wilson Reference Z1035 .A1 B6
Locating Works in Collections

In looking for literary works--poems, short stories, plays, essays--in collections or anthologies keep in mind that:

  1. Most of them will not be separately noted in MNCAT--listings are for complete books, by editor or compiler and by title of the work only. It is sometimes worth checking the catalogs by title, however, in case the title of the work anthologized has been used as the general title of the collection. It is also sometimes worth checking the catalogs by author for collections of his or her essays, poems, plays or short stories which might include the work you want (and then looking at the table of contents of the volume itself). Another method of locating elusive literary works in collections is through an individual author bibliography (see III, C), listing works by author.

  2. The most efficient way to begin tracking down anthologized works not listed in MNCAT, however, is through the genre indexes below:

  • Essays
  • Short Stories
  • Poems
    • American Verse Project
      http://www.lib.umn.edu/get/2738
      The American Verse Project is a collaborative project between the University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative (HTI) and the University of Michigan Press. The project is assembling an electronic archive of volumes of American poetry prior to 1920. The full text of each volume of poetry is being converted into digital form and coded in Standard Generalized Mark-up Language (SGML) using the TEI Guidelines, with various forms of access provided through the WWW.
  • Plays
Writing the Paper and Style Manuals

The books listed below can answer questions on grammar, familiarize you with scholarly conventions and research paper format, and help you improve your style.

  • Chicago Manual of Style Online
    http://www.lib.umn.edu/get/5227
    The standard work and most comprehensive of the style manuals. All chapters are written for the electronic age, with advice on how to prepare and edit manuscripts online, handle copyright and permissions issues raised by new technologies, use the latest methods of preparing mathematical copy, and cite electronic and online sources.
Other Guides to Research

Most of the library sources you will need in beginning to investigate a literary topic are discussed in the other sections of this guide, but the following book-length guides will direct you to other reference works--both literary and general--to assist you in going further in your research.

  • Literary
  • General


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