Online Research Methods in the Literature Classroom
This handout is designed to help teachers and students traverse the mire of
research tools available online. More specifically, it outlines the typical
search strategy for the literature student at OSU.
Part One: Web Source Research
The web offers scores of academic and scholarly websites devoted to giving
biographical and background information on all genres and periods of literature--the
foremost problem is finding them. The following kinds of sites--subject directories,
subject guides, search engines--are organized from the most academic and most
specific to the least. Thus, the first place to start web source research for
an academic paper would be subject directories, the last place would be search
engines. The second problem, as you will discover as you find and evaluate
even the most academic sites, is that the world wide web offers only a paucity
of critical argument and scholarly interpretation. Therefore, use web sources
if and only if your instructor and assignment specifically allow them.
1. Subject Guides in Literature
Expert subject guides focus on specialized information within a field or group
of fields, and are usually maintained by experts within those fields. Such sites
make no attempt to catalog the entire web and are necessarily dependent on the
expertise and judgment of whomever runs the site. However, a good subject guide
can be an invaluable resource for focused academic research because the site
operator has annotated the best sources for a particular field on the web.
- Jack Lynch's Literary Resources on the Net <http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Lit/>:
A searchable links collection of scholarly sites ranging all areas of literary
studies, from classical to hypertextual. A good place to start one's investigation
of a period or discipline.
- Voice of the Shuttle <http://vos.ucsb.edu/>:
THE web page for not only literary research, but the rest of the humanities
as well. It's general sources sections highlights everything from conducting
web searches for scholarly materials and finding colleague emails to style
guides and conference in the humanities.
2. Subject Directories
After searching a subject guide, the next place to go is a subject directory.
Subject directories are sites which categorize not just one discipline, but
any number of fields. Moreover, they some are not necessarily academic and are
not maintained by people intimate with the field. Moreover, some links, especially
in commercial sites, are actually paid to the subject directory for placement.
The benefit to such sites is that they do allow simple searches within them.
If a subject guide is a specialty boutique, then a subject directory is shopping
- About <http://www.about.com>:
Innumerous subject pages that organize literature by period, genre, language,
and so forth, thus allowing easy access to the basic sites. Allows searches
within the website as well on the web entire.
- Academic Info <http://www.academicinfo.net>:
Rich selection geared toward college and research users; somewhat limited
advanced searching features. No language and literature section.
- Infomine <http://infomine.ucr.edu>:
From the Libraries of the University of California University, over 16,000
pages compiled by academic librarians; excellent annotations; some advanced
- Librarians' Index to the Internet <http://www.lii.org>:
Small but high-quality collection of sites compiled by public librarians;
excellent annotations; good advanced search features.
- Yahoo! <http://www.yahoo.com>:
Another extensive subject guide, although commercial. Use with extreme caution.
3. Search Engines
Search engines are massive databases of web pages compiled and updated by
automated programs called "spiders." Spiders catalog the content of web pages
word by word and trace connections among these pages link by link and report
these results back to a central database. Although search engines are thorough,
they have no editorial refinement and can only be searched by keywords. Therefore,
if a word appears on a page, then that page would be generated on the search,
regardless of the overall context of the page. If one looks up "Emily Dickinson" in
a search engine, then pages found in the subject guides and directories will
come up, but so too will commercial sites trying to sell her books and fan
sites that merely list her on a links page. Moreover, some search engines,
because they are commercial sites, rank search results according to paid sponsorship.
Others rank search results by popularity. In either case, the results are
not ranked by quality.
a. Meta-Search Engines
Meta-search engines are search engines that compile other search engines. The
same cautions regarding and organization by popularity and paid sponsorship
Note: Refer to CCL's handouts on online searching to get the most out
of search engines.
Refer to CCL's handouts on website evaluation to help you analyze the quality
of the sites found in your search, and contrast those sites to what is available
in scholarly print sources.
Part Two: Print Source Research
The easiest material to find on the web when researching literature is biographical,
historical, and contextual. The most difficult is scholarly criticism and interpretation.
If you're doing a research paper, it's best to use scholarly books and journal
articles found through the library's online catalogues. This section will guide
you first through a book search and then through a journal article search.
Note: This handout provides strategies only; for more detailed manipulation
of the catalogues, check out CCL's handouts on using OSCAR and Ohiolink's literary
All of The Ohio State University Libraries' catalogues are available online
At OSU, all searches for books begin with OSCAR, <http://library.ohio-state.edu/search/>.
a. Primary Texts
If you want to search for primary texts, that is, works of literature (novels,
shorts story collections, books of poetry, plays, films, albums), input the
title of the work into a "Title" search. For example, entering "Eugene
O'Neill" into an "Author" search will return original works written
by O'Neill himself; entering Long Day's Journey into Night will return
all editions of the play that the library has.
b. Secondary Texts
If you want to search for secondary texts, that is, works of criticism about
the author or primary text, enter the author and/or title of the work to be
studied into a "Subject" search. This retrieves a list of works that
the library has already organized for that particular author or work. If the
subject search doesn't offer many results (either you've input an obscure author
or an obscure work that doesn't have its own subject listing), then input the
same author or title into a "Words" search. This results in entries
that have the keywords somewhere in the listing (in the author, title, subject,
or table of contents, for instance). The keyword search will yield both primary
texts by the author or work and secondary texts about the author or work.
Use the "Mark Records" and "Export Saved Records" function
on the browsing or records view to save citations to disk or send them to your
email account for later use.
If you can't find any books or book chapters in OSCAR, click on "Ohiolink"
and do the same set of searches. Ohiolink, which borrows from over 70 institutions
in Ohio, takes 5-10 business days to ship items to OSU.
2. Journal Articles
Journals are scholarly publications that are issued two to four times a year.
Journal articles are extensive, sometimes book chapter-length essays written
by scholars in the field. Therefore, journal articles should not be confused
with magazine and newspaper articles, which are short essays written by non-academics
on deadline. Unless your instructor tells you otherwise, refrain from using
magazine and newspaper articles as sources in a literary research paper.
While searching OSU's online catalogues for books is straightforward, searching
for journal articles is not as they can be found in a number of places. Some
journal articles can be directly downloaded from the research database while
most must be obtained from the stacks after using OSCAR to locate them as one
would a book. The first step in a journal article search is to find the articles.
Journal articles are indexed in databases under "Other Online Research
Tools" on the Libraries' main page.
(A note on online journals: Increasingly, scholarly journals are being published
simultaneously in print and online. Online journal articles that mirror print
articles are thus appropriate to use in an academic research setting. However,
some online journals are not scholarly and are journals in name only. If you've
found the journal through OSU's library system, then it's scholarly, if not,
make sure that the journal adhere to the same standards as scholarly print journals,
i.e., written by scholars in the field, extensively researched, referreed. When
in doubt, check with your instructor to determine if it's appropriate to use
as a resource.)
These databases contain a broad range of information on innumerable topics.
As OSU pays for the use of most of these sites, you must be logged on to the
Internet via your OSU username and password to access them. If you're Off-Campus
and not using Homenet, look for the Off-Campus Access link <http://proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu:2048/login>.
If you know the title of the database you want, use Databases by Title; otherwise,
the first place to start is "Databases by Subject." For literary research, follow
the "Language and Literature" link. Databases are then listed in alphabetical
order. Most allow you to save and export records as in OSCAR. The most useful
databases for secondary sources in literary studies are:
On the results page, you can click "Find a Copy" to determine if
OSU Libraries has the journal and where it is located. Although a few journals
in current issues are on the web; most are in the ETC reading room of the Main
Library. Note that most journals cannot be checked out. You can copy the journal
using the library's copiers or take notes on the journal while in the library
(there's a computer lab beside the ETC reading room).
Alternatively, you can see if OhioLink has an electronic copy of the journal.
On the OSU Libraries main page, Look for the OhioLINK Electronic Journal Center
and use the drop down menu of Journals by Title.
b. Electronic Journals
Also check collections of journals with online articles to which OSU has access
Most of the journals and searchable databases are scientific, but some are literary.
Part Three: Historical Background and Other Disciplines
Entering the author and the primary text into OSCAR by "Words" and "Subject"
as well as literary databases gives secondary sources about the primary text
that are mostly, if not wholly, literary.
You can also use OSCAR and other subject databases to find historical and
contextual information, not necessarily about the work of literature itself,
but about the culture it was produced in. For example, for a paper focusing
on the Tyrones as an immigrant family in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's
Journey into Night, after searching for literary criticism on the topic,
you could also search for variations of "immigrant family" in OSCAR "Words"
and "Subject" to find books; and you could search (then limit) "immigration"
in "History" Ohiolink subject databases such as Historical Abstracts, "Sociology"
subject databases such as Sociological Abstracts, or even "Psychology" subject
databases such as PsycInfo. Other useful databases for sociohistorical background
As literature incorporate all aspects of the human world, you can also research
other relevant disciplines. Incorporate "Religion" research in a paper on Tyrone's
Catholicism and Edmund's negative theology; or use "Medicine" research in a
paper on Mary's morphine addiction and Edmund's TB prognosis. Depending on the
work of literature and your topic, you may research art, education, ethnic and
gender studies, law, mathematics, music, philosophy, and so forth.
Have you checked . . .
Web sources like . . .
Subject guides like Jack Lynch's Literary Resources on the Web?
Subject directories like Academic Info?
Search engines like Hotbot?
Meta-search engines like Dogpile?
Print sources like . . .
Primary and secondary texts through OSCAR and
Journal articles through OSCAR and
through Ohiolink subject databases such as MLA International Bibliography?
The Ohio State Universities Libraries has an abbreviated MLA style guide in
html format at <http://www.lib.ohio-state.edu/guides/mlagd.html>
and in pdf format at <http://www.lib.ohio-state.edu/guides/mla.pdf>.
CCL has a thorough checklist, with examples, of the information required for
proper MLA citation of web sources at <http://ccl.english.ohio-state.edu/handouts/web_research/eval_and_cite/MLAcitation.htm>.