A guide to research in English literary studies
Updated: Sep 18, 2020
This guide introduces you to basic resources for doing research in English literary studies. Some of these resources are geared towards the British eighteenth century, which is my area of specialization, but some cut across periods and fields. You will probably be familiar with some of them, but others may be new to you. You will find this guide helpful whether you are writing a seminar paper, getting started on your dissertation, or need more advanced tools for locating primary and secondary sources.
◾ Sources that used to require visits to distant archives are increasingly available on digital databases that you may be able to access through your university library. If you are looking for titles published in Britain from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, search for the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), the most extensively bibliography of primary sources in early modern Britain. The ESTC will help you find titles, but in order to locate the actual texts you should visit other databases that store sources. Two marvelous ones are Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Nineteenth-Century Collections Online (NCCO).
◾ If your field is the British eighteenth century, then your database of choice is Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO). It holds more than a hundred thousand digitized texts from the eighteenth century, all of them text searchable. The reason why ECCO is so useful is that most texts published in the eighteenth century do not exist in modern editions. This includes not only hundreds and hundreds of novels that were never republished, but also journalism, book reviews, philosophical treatises, sermons, almanacs, diaries, political pamphlets, and so on. Once you get a sense of what your dissertation will be about, spend some time on ECCO doing keyword searches. This does not necessarily involve finding new sources to write chapters about (even though it can involve that); you may simply be interested in what eighteenth-century reviewers were saying about the novel or poem you are reading, or in how people wrote on the issues you are tracing (sensibility, women’s lives, commerce, elections, slavery, the imagination, human nature, and so on). You are very likely to find exciting sources you did not know about but which may be perfect for your purposes.
You may be able to access ECCO through your library website, as long as they have a subscription. There are also other eighteenth-century repositories you should consider, including Eighteenth-Century Journals (which holds rare journals printed between c.1685 and 1835) and the 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection. For additional resources, consult the website of the Lewis Walpole Library (a rare-book library specializing in the British eighteenth century): https://guides.library.yale.edu/british18thc
◾ If you are doing work on the Enlightenment, here are a few websites containing reliable versions of important primary sources: the ARTFL Project (https://artfl-project.uchicago.edu/) gives you access to the complete works of Voltaire (Tout Voltaire) and to the full text of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. Both are in French. For an ongoing English translation of the Encyclopédie, consult The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/). And for the complete works of David Hume, you can use Hume Texts Online (https://davidhume.org/).
◾ If you read French and are looking for French-language materials, the closest equivalent to ECCO is Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (https://www.bnf.fr/en/gallica-bnf-digital-library).
◾A different way of looking for potentially useful primary sources would be to consult the catalogs of presses that publish in our field. The Broadview Press has been publishing lots of previously unavailable eighteenth-century works (both fiction and nonfiction) in annotated editions. Check their website for a full list of titles: https://broadviewpress.com/product-category/english-studies/.
◾Two final words about primary sources: (1) If you are working with sources available in modern editions, then keep in mind that not all modern editions are equal. Amazon sells lots of “print-on-demand” editions which you should avoid by all means: they are carelessly copied from online texts and may be distorted or miss important passages. It is also prudent to avoid editions by popular presses such as Signet or Vintage. Instead, work with editions prepared by an eighteenth-century scholar. Publishers like Oxford, Penguin, Norton, and others clearly identify the editor who prepared the text and the critical apparatus. Prefer these editions. And then, (2), in the case of highly canonical authors there often are modern editions considered to be the “standard” edition. These are viewed as the best extant editions of your source, and journals often expect you to use (and to quote) that particular edition in your articles. For example, if you are working on Samuel Johnson, the standard edition is the one published by Yale University Press; the standard edition for Henry Fielding is The Wesleyan Edition of the Works of Henry Fielding, while for Jane Austen it is The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. (If you are working on Austen, make sure to consult Jane Austen in Context, one of the volumes of the Cambridge Edition.) In most cases these are very expensive editions you may not be able to afford, but the library should have them. What I usually do is to begin work with a good paperback edition and then check out the standard edition when I sit down to write.
This is where you may feel paralyzed, since there is so much out there to know about. Where do you even start? Most students start by checking the library, asking people for recommendations, and consulting the bibliographies included in modern editions of primary sources. Those are all good methods, but there are better gateways into the world of secondary sources — ones that will make sure you are not missing the crucial article that came out just last year. You probably already know about databases such as Jstor and Project MUSE, which serve as aggregators for important journals in English. Jstor is good but Project MUSE is better, as it gives you access to more recent scholarship and often features abstracts of articles. But there are other resources out there, including the following:
- Bibliographies of English studies. These give you access to comprehensive lists of the existing scholarship on any given topic, and they exist both online and in print. The most important one in our field is the MLA International Bibliography, which you can learn about here. It is essentially an advanced search engine focused on scholarship in the field of modern languages and literatures. Online bibliographies like the MLA and the Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature (ABELL) have the advantage that they are regularly updated. But you may also consult printed bibliographies, many of which offer annotations on titles, giving you a sense of an article’s or book’s contents before you dive into reading it. Book-format bibliographies usually include the word “bibliography” in the title, so they should be easy to search for (an example is Barry Roth’s An Annotated Bibliography of Jane Austen Studies, 1973-83). The advantage of such bibliographies is that they save you a lot of time — you can quickly gather which books and articles you need to read and which ones you can safely skip. While useful, however, they inevitably get dated and must be used alongside more current material.
- Yearly reviews. These serve a different role than bibliographies. You can use them to get a sense of what is available out there, but they tend to be less comprehensive than a proper bibliography. Their advantage, however, is that they provide brief reviews of the listed items. The most comprehensive yearly review for secondary sources in English Studies is Oxford’s The Year’s Work in English Studies (YWES), available at https://academic.oup.com/ywes. Once a year YWES publishes a 1,500-page volume, fully available online, reviewing relevant books and articles in all periods of British and American literature, organizing them by section. There are sections, for example, entitled “Old English,” “The Eighteenth Century,” “The Victorian Period,” and “American Literature to 1900.” You can go straight to the section that matters for you and search for reviews on the author/source you are interested in. This serves as a shortcut into the world of secondary literature, allowing you to read many reviews at one sitting and deciding which articles/books you should read in full and which ones you can safely skip.
If you are doing work in the eighteenth-century, then make sure to also use The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats (https://muse.jhu.edu/journal/567), available on Project MUSE. The Scriblerian reviews all articles and books on canonical eighteenth-century authors including Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Eliza Haywood, and Henry Fielding.
- Surveys of recent studies: These are different than either bibliographies or yearly reviews, in that they consider trends in the field. The best example is the yearly “omnibus” essay published by SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 covering recent developments in four different fields: “The English Renaissance” (Winter), “Tudor and Stuart Drama” (Spring), “The Restoration and Eighteenth Century” (Summer), and “The Nineteenth Century” (Autumn). Once a year, SEL invites a major scholar in each of these fields to survey approximately 100 books published the previous year and write a long review essay. The essays discuss individual books but focus on describing the state of the field and identifying trends in the scholarship. Reading (or even browsing) a few of these essays will give you a good sense of the conversations currently taking place, and may help you decide where you belong and who your interlocutors are. You can then compile a list of sources you want to consult more directly.
A different type of survey, organized by topic, is published by the online journal Literary Compass, which regularly publishes articles covering scholarship on themes such as gender studies, ecocriticism, memory studies, literature and technology, secularism, and so on.
- Metacritical studies. Just as there are studies of literary history, there are studies of studies of literary history. A good example is the Readers’ Guides to Essential Criticism series, published by Palgrave (https://www.macmillanihe.com/series/readers-guides-to-essential-criticism/14520/). If you are working on the rise of the novel, for example, I can’t recommend highly enough Nicholas Seager’s The Rise of the Novel: A Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism. It surveys, in brief and informative chapters organized chronologically, the main books written on the rise of the novel both before and after Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957), separating them by topic (feminist studies, postcolonial studies, and so on). The same series features books surveying decades of scholarship on Gothic fiction, Virginia Woolf, postcolonial literature, children’s literature, Jane Austen, literature and science, Shakespeare, and a lot else.
- You probably already know the Cambridge Companion series: these are collections of essays targeted at students and scholars seeking an entry into a new subject.
- Dedicated online journals. If you are doing work on Jane Austen, make ample use of the online version of Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America (http://jasna.org/publications/persuasions-online/). Make sure, in particular, to check the bibliographical essays, which cover the year’s output in Austen studies. If you are working on Defoe, make sure to check Digital Defoe (https://digitaldefoe.org/).
This list is far from exhaustive, and is limited by my knowledge of the field. If you are working outside of traditional British literary history, consult a professor who specializes in your field and ask them for similar resources. For example, my colleague Dr. Margaret Galvan recommends this page to students looking for scholarship on comics. Other fields very probably benefit from field-specific bibliographies, aggregators, review journals, digital databases and other resources you may not know about. It's worth asking.
Three important reference works
This should go without saying, but if you are planning to quote definitions from a modern dictionary, the dictionary to quote is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED has several advantages over more popular dictionaries: it is incomparably more comprehensive, it provides rich etymological information on every entry, and — most importantly for our purposes — it provides quotations to illustrate how words were used in past historical periods. It shows, for example, how the word “novel” changed meanings over the course of the centuries.
If, by contrast, you are looking for how a word was defined in the eighteenth century, you can use the OED in conjunction with Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which the University of Central Florida is currently in the process of digitizing: https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/.
Another source you need to know is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB). Also available through library subscription, the DNB is the source to go if you need a biography of a British figure. Unlike popular sources such as Wikipedia, the DBN is written by experts — thus the entry on Jane Austen is written by the influential Austen scholar Marilyn Butler, while the entry on Daniel Defoe is written by Defoe’s most important biographer, Paula R. Backscheider. The entries often consist in summaries of the standard biographies with updated information.