The Sources at Your Disposal



In the contemporary study of language and literature, single-author books customarily run to around 250 pages because that is generally just about the length needed for a highly sophisticated, yet tightly focused argument based upon the conventions of argumentation in these fields. It is likely that a great deal of your research will come in the form of printed books, physically contained within the library.  Your reading list should always be your starting point when researching an essay or reading around a topic. Reading lists will contain some of the most important and relevant sources on the topic under consideration, but remember, reading lists represent a beginning, rather than an end.  When you find an especially helpful source on a reading list, take a look at its bibliography.  What sources does that author refer to?  Are there any sources that you see several authors citing?  Which scholars seem to be most authoritative on the topic that you are addressing? Paying attention to issues such as these can help to give you a richer and ultimately more valuable understanding of how to discover relevant and helpful books.


Edited collections are a very common format for the dissemination of knowledge in academia, primarily because they allow for a wide array of voices to present quite a broad perspective on a topic.  It’s important to point out that edited collections are listed in the library catalogue under their editor, rather than under the names of the authors of individual chapters. Finding an edited collection on a topic that you are working with can be a fantastic starting point to the research process.  You will have in front of you 8 or more writer’s ideas on your topic, and since it is likely the case that those authors have also written about this topic elsewhere, you will already have a list of ‘leads’ to help you move more deeply into the literature

Journals are a bit like academic magazines, and can range from the general (e.g. The Publication of the Modern Language Association) to the specific (e.g. Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies). Articles in most reputable academic journals go through a rigorous peer review process, which makes sure that only the finest pieces go to press.  Because of this, journal articles carry a great deal of academic authority, and will be an important type of source for your research. Articles in academic journals are often around the length of one chapter of an academic book — enough space to develop one element or component of a broader argument. It is very often the case that academics ʻexperimentʼ with new ideas in the form of a journal article before developing that idea into a full-length book.


Although academic research is becoming increasingly digital, paper publications are still vitally important in academic communities. The great thing about databases such as JSTOR, Literature Online (LION), EEBO and others is that they make getting your hands on paper publications much easier than ever before. The great thing about the accessible of electronic sources is that you can access a wide variety of important sources directly from your computer.  There are several important research databases that you can access through the library catalogue.

If you use Google regularly, and feel comfortable with its features, then it may be a great idea to begin your research with Scholar Google. The interface will be familiar, and the sources that you find listed there can then be traced either through the library catalogue or through primary and secondary source databases. Google Scholar gives you the scope and power of the Google search engine, yet still generally turns up only high-quality academic sources.  It is important to note that your search results on Google Scholar will not likely give you direct access to digitized publications.  Instead, you should note down the relevant bibliographical material, and see if the article of book is available in digital or hard copy from the library

This post is based upon teaching materials developed while I was teaching at the University of Leeds.

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