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12.13: How to Perform Literary Research (Navigating Secondary Sources and Library Databases)

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    Finding Literary Criticism

    Have you ever looked up the lyrics of a song you loved? Perhaps you went to Genius or or another lyrics website. Perhaps you went on Reddit to see what other people have said about the meaning of the song lyrics. In each of these cases, you performed literary research! That is, you tried to find out more about a work of literature (song lyrics) by researching what other listeners have said about the topic. When performing research for formal literature essays, the concept is the same, but there expectations are higher in the sense that you are expected to find what experts have said about a work of literature. In the field of literary studies, these experts are called literary critics. The articles they write are called literary criticism.

    Finding Literary Criticism is similar to doing a Google search. The difference is that, instead of Google, you use your school's library databases specific to the study of literature. Just as you would not go to McDonald's to buy sushi, so too must you consider the places you go to find criticism specific to your research needs. To that end, there are several resources geared towards the study of literature where students can find literary criticism. Each database presents its own benefits and challenges.

    Physical Books

    open book sitting on a bookshelf among other books

    "Books and bookshelves" by Jorge Royan (2009) is licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

    Campus Library

    If you are a student with access to a college campus library, ask the librarian for help finding literary criticism. Generally, college libraries will have access to these kinds of materials. If the material you are looking for is not available at your campus, your librarian may be able to request it through a process called Inter-library Loan (ILL). Talk to your librarian about your options. Be sure to block out enough time to access and read these articles, which often takes longer than students anticipate.

    City Library or Library for the General Public

    While city libraries or libraries for the general public may not have as much literary criticism as a college library, they do usually have some of the more famous examples. For example, Harold Bloom's Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (2003) is available at most libraries. Again, librarians are your friends in the research process: ask your librarian for help finding materials to support your individual research needs. Increasingly, libraries have access to massive amounts of digital material even if they don't have physical copies.

    Online Databases

    red and white JSTOR icon (decorative)

    "JSTOR Icon" by Gwillhickers (2018) is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

    If your campus or local library subscribes to databases, the following databases are the most relevant to the study of literature.

    Literary Reference Center Plus

    This database is probably the most easily accessible and user-friendly database for literary research. It contains primary sources (classic texts), and secondary sources (biographies and literary criticism). It is completely focused on literature, so this database means you do not have to worry about finding material from other disciplines. However, this database is also not as comprehensive as other databases.

    MLA International Bibliography

    The MLA International Bibliography is an online database containing over 2.8 million articles in over 60 languages from all over the world (MLA). New articles are added every year. This is probably the best place to find the most relevant and current literary criticism. Warning: be careful to avoid Book Reviews which are not considered literary criticism! If you have the ability to filter your search, click "Scholarly" or "Peer Reviewed" to increase likelihood you will find relevant articles.


    JSTOR is another large database but is less literature and language-specific as it also contains articles in subjects such as history and psychology. It can be an effective tool for finding older literary criticism and primary source documents. It also provides a free research course to aid students in using databases. However, watch out, because it is such a massive database it also contains a lot of book reviews (which are not literary criticism) and a lot of really, really old literary criticism that may no longer be relevant to the discipline.

    Oxford English Dictionary

    This is the go-to dictionary for literary critics. It is better for the study of literature than Google or Merriam-Webster because it provides the historical context (etymology) of terms in addition to their current usage, an important consideration for older works such as Hamlet, where word meanings have changed significantly over time. When reading a work of literature, have the Oxford English Dictionary open in a separate window so that you can look up words as you read.

    General Tips for Using Databases

    On Navigating Databases

    Search Terms

    Before jumping into the databases, be sure to have, at least, a topic you are interested in researching. A topic should include a work of literature and an aspect of that work of literature. For example:

    • Work of Literature: Hamlet
    • Aspect: Prison/Incarceration

    So my research topic might be: "Prison in Hamlet" or "Incarceration in Hamlet"

    Once you have this main topic, brainstorm a list of search terms that might generate results. Because the searching mechanism is an algorithm, you may need to experiment with different search terms, as computers have a difficult time recognizing synonyms.

    Example of Terms Related to Topic

    • Hamlet prison
    • Incarceration Hamlet
    • Panopticon Hamlet
    • Jail Hamlet
    • All of Denmark is a prison
    • Elsinore prison
    • Elsinore incarceration
    • Elsinore jail

    Now that I have some search terms, I will try using them in each database.

    After performing my searches, the following results popped up, each in a different database:

    Ahnert, Ruth. “The Prison in Early Modern Drama.” Literature Compass, vol. 9, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 34–47. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00860.x.

    Hopkins, Lisa. “‘Denmark’s a Prison’: Hamlet and the Earl of Bothwell.” Hamlet Studies: An International Journal of Research on The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke,

    vol. 19, no. 1–2, 1997, pp. 93–96. EBSCOhost,,cpid,uid&custid=s4302453&db=mlf&AN=1997065700&site=ehost-live.

    Kozusko, Matt. “Monstrous!: Actors, Audiences, Inmates, and the Politics of Reading Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Bulletin: A Journal of Performance Criticism and Scholarship,

    vol. 28, no. 2, 2010, pp. 235–251. EBSCOhost,,cpid,uid&custid=s4302453&db=mlf&AN=2010582294&site=ehost-live.

    Steggle, Matthew. “CRITICAL READINGS: What Kinds of Prison Are in Hamlet?” Critical Insights: Hamlet, Jan. 2019, pp. 134–148. EBSCOhost,

    I can now begin to read my sources and learn more about my research topic.

    Research Log

    While researching, you will likely encounter many, many, many different sources. Because there are so many sources, it is easy to lose track of them unless you organize your search process. Otherwise, at best, you might miss out on including a source that is helpful. At worst, you might unintentionally plagiarize and receive a 0 on the assignment.

    Thus, to help combat the potential for disorganization during the research process, keep a research log. A research log—or, more formally, an Annotated Bibliography—is basically a document where you keep track of information, such as:

    • Search terms used
    • Databases explored
    • Citations for articles/resources found
    • Annotations of these sources

    Keeping a research log may seem like extra work, but, in the long run, it is actually more efficient. It helps you keep track of the sources you have already explored so that you do not waste time re-reading articles and performing research steps you already completed. It also makes it easier to pull information when writing the essay and aids you in avoiding plagiarism. Depending on your class, you may be asked to perform a more formal research log called an Annotated Bibliography. More on that in the next section.

    So what are you waiting for? Enjoy the process of research!