Researching Literature Papers

 

Effective research ultimately entails knowing when to drop a useless lead and when to hunt down a promising one, so put on your detective hats, be curious about anything and everything inasmuch as you can (without miring yourself in needless detail) and hound out the mysteries of the topic which you are investigating as if some juicy murder was at stake.  

           

Initial Steps:

Google Scholar: Set your Google Scholar preferences to make our library, the Halle library at Eastern Michigan University, your default library.  Google will then lead you to the “Find Text” tool that makes locating scholarship at this university easy.

LibX@EMU Library: Download the LibX@EMU software so that Google Scholar and other sites listing scholarly articles or the ISBN numbers of books will link to the Halle library catalogue, as well as to WorldCat, the catalogue for libraries around the world.  This software will also put a search bar for the Halle library right in your Firefox browser.       

RefWorks: Go to the library home page, download the free bibliographic software RefWorks, and set up an account so that you can keep track of your various sources in different folders as your research develops.  Books in the library catalogue can be imported into RefWorks, and so too can those found in the databases or Google Scholar.  Any source in RefWorks can be searched offline, as if it was a part of your own private database, as well as converted into a Work Cited page entry very easily in MS Word.

ILL: You may want to set up an ILL account (another link on the library homepage) so that you can request books from other libraries with a click of a button. 

Boolean searches: Use Boolean expressions to make searches in any database more effective (typing “and,”“or,” “not,” while putting phrases between quotation marks and using * midway to get every version of a word). 

Computing Issues: Throughout the research process, push the “Control” (or Apple) and the “N” buttons at the same time in your browser whenever you use a new database or begin a new keyword search so that you don’t have to repeat the same searches constantly.  That way you can also consult two webpages at the same time (such as the reference to a source and the place in which that source is ultimately found).  If you need to copy and paste, push the buttons “C” and “V” (plus the Cntl button) respectively, and push the Alt button plus the Tab button to flip back and forth through the screens.  Also use F plus  Cntl to find things on the page rather than wasting time skimming, and type the first letter of what you are looking for in a menu to get directly to that spot.

 

Brainstorming:

1)      Start your research by doing general keyword searches in the library catalogue, the databases mentioned below (MLA, JSTOR, and Project Muse), or Google Scholar.  That will generate the full range of possible approaches that you can take to your topic, showing you the paths that others have taken before you as well as those that have yet to be explored.  Just be sure to skim the upshot of these searches quickly without getting too bogged down in minutia, as there is a lot of material out there that will not be of any use to you at all. 

2)      The library catalogue, despite its somewhat arbitrary subject headings, is one of the best locations in which to brainstorm possible research topics.  Click on the call number of one relevant book that you know to be relevant to get a list of all other books available on the same topic, or browse the shelf in person where that particular book is found so that you can flip through similar books and better discriminate between them. 

3)      Skim the Work Cited pages of whichever sources have already been most useful to you in order to find other sources that will be useful to your own research.

4)      The Literature Resource Center is a good place to begin a research project in our field.  To find this database, or to find any other database, see the “Databases” link in the library catalogue.  The LRC will give you basic background on an author or text: it has glossaries, biographies, bibliographies, timelines, reviews, and other helpful resources.  Very little literary criticism is found in this location (scholarship that would actually count as a required source for this and other classes), but the general knowledge that it does provide can be extremely helpful in shaping the direction of your research, in generating a clearer idea of what you might look out for while researching, and in making the other sources that you might encounter more meaningful to you.  The LRC also has an glossary of  literary terms.

 

Starting Your Research (the MLA):

1)      Go to the MLA Bibliography, the main database for our field, to find scholarship relating exclusively to literature, or go to whichever database is recommended for the particular discipline that is of interest to you (history, philosophy, etc.).  The databases listed on the library webpage can be sorted alphabetically, or by subject and discipline, depending on which link you click. 

2)      Once in the MLA or other database (many are basically the same as the MLA in design), mark all of records that are of interest to you and relevant to your topic, importing them into RefWorks (or at least emailing them to yourself) so that you can keep track of the sources that you are using, that you may consult later, or that you plan to hunt down in the future.  Use “Subject Author,” “Subject Work,” or “Descriptor” to narrow searches to the specific literary text that you are examining, or do keyword searches for a wide array of related topics, skimming whatever comes up and brainstorming different directions for your paper. You can also email a list of relevant sources to your email account for reference or to copy and paste into your Works Cited page if you ultimately cite them.

3)      As with most databases, you can sort results either by relevance or by date.  Give precedence to scholarship published most recently, as it will be the most reliable.  (It will also summarize whatever research has come before and omit mention of that research which has been discredited.)  Whenever possible, stick to scholarship published within the last 20 years.  If you are writing on an obscure topic or on an obscure literary work, you may have little choice except to use older (and potentially outmoded) scholarship.

 

Evaluating and Finding the Sources listed in the MLA:

1)      Filter out dissertations, supposing that they aren’t the only scholarship available (as may sometimes legitimately happen with emerging or innovative fields), as well as book reviews.  If you do find a book review of interest, go to the original source, the book itself, and use that in your essay instead.

2)      Some full-text articles are available with a click of a button within the MLA, some are available with two clicks through the “Find Text” button, while others will only have their bibliographic information listed so that you can find them elsewhere.  Make sure to use whatever scholarship most directly relates to your topic, not simply that which is easiest to find or comes up first.  You don’t want to distort the focus of your essay (and potentially get altogether stuck while writing it) merely because the sources that you read aren’t germane to the topic that first inspired you and that you actually want to investigate.

3)      If the article(s) that you want are not directly available in the MLA, click the “Find Text” links to access them and follow the directions.  If you are looking for a book (or book chapter), search the book title in the library catalogue.

 

Finding Articles listed in the MLA:

1)      To locate any article manually, without the assistance of the Find Text tool (which sometimes will not do the work for you), you will need to know its volume number, issue number (supposing that it has one), date of publication, and both the title and page numbers of the journal in which it is found.  You ultimately will put this information in your Works Cited page.  That way your readers can find the source if they need it for their own research. 

2)      Sometimes the library does have these articles electronically, but the Find Text tool isn’t aware of them.  If the Find Text button doesn’t immediately lead you to a digital version of an article, try searching the journal title (not the article title) in the Periodicals Locator, yet another link on the library catalogue.  (Downloading the LibX@EMU software will make it available in your Firefox browser.)  Accessing articles electronically is much easier than finding them in physical form, so double checking the Periodicals Locator is worth the effort.

3)      An article might be found in one of four places:

a)      In another database (to which either the Find Text tool or the Periodicals Locator will lead you)

b)      In storage (in which case you will need to request the proper volume through the library catalogue, checking it out from the circulation desk, and then reading it in the library or photocopying it)

c)      On the second floor of the library together with the bound periodicals (shelved alphabetically, then by volume number)

d)      On microfiche (intelligible by a machine which you may need help to use). 

4)      When you are obliged to use hard copies of articles or book chapters, make sure to photocopy them so that you can take notes as you read, highlighting what actually matters to your research and strenuously filtering out the detritus as you proceed.  Most often you will be writing the paper long after you do your research, and the highlighting will ensure that you do not have to reread the material in its entirety all over again once you actually start composing the essay.  Alternately, you can scan the articles on the computers on the first floor of the library and make your own digital copies for free.

5)      If the library doesn’t have any version of the article at all, digital or otherwise, you are actually sometimes in luck.  You can then “ILL” the article, or Interlibrary Loan it.  Someone else will photocopy it for you, either sending it to you by email or sending it to the library by regular mail for you to pick up.  The Find Text tool leads you through the ILL process automatically, but you can also request ILL materials on your own if you need to (go to the library home page and enter the relevant information by hand).

 

Finding Books listed in the MLA:

1)      If you are seeking a book rather than an article, search the book title, book author, book editor, or some combination thereof in the library catalogue (searching by keyword alone wastes a lot of time).  If the catalogue indicates that we don’t have the particular book or that it is checked out, make a request for the book through MelCat.  Often when a book search doesn’t pan out, a link to MelCat will be right there for you to click on the screen.  If not, open the library home page in a separate window, click the MelCat link, and fill in the information by hand. 

2)      If you are seeking a chapter from a book, both ILL and MelCat will work (supposing the library doesn’t already have it), but ILL is better because someone else does the photocopying for you and you might get it emailed to you quickly.  If you are unsure of the title or page numbers (necessary to make a request), search Google Scholar or Amazon, which sometimes have tables of contents for you to view.

3)      If you are seeking a complete book, MelCat has the quickest turn around (and thus would be your first choice); however, ILL gives you access to nearly all of the library collections throughout the US.  You can therefore access almost any book in the entire country; that is, besides rare books, which are too precious to send indiscriminately. 

4)      If you are seeking a rare book, don’t despair: simply consult WorldCat, a database now linked in Google Scholar, to discover the closest library that has it.  There is a high probability that it will be found at the University of Michigan library, a short drive down Washtenaw, or in any of the other fine libraries within driving distance.

5)      Yet another place to find articles or books unavailable in our library is Google Scholar.  In fact, Google Scholar is especially useful because the texts that it has are searchable from cover to cover.  (You can even find some books for your courses full-text for free.)  Because copyrighted material is unavailable in Google scholar (or available only in awkward chucks), use this search engine to supplement or to inspire your research, giving preference to the library materials whenever possible.  Research conducted through this search engine, especially in isolation, tends to be unduly outdated because it draws on so many antiquated sources (those from the last half century will still be under copyright protection)

 

Other Powerful Resources to consult:

a.       Project Muse, a collection of journals containing full-text articles in the humanities and social sciences.  This database has the most recently published articles, though it is not exhaustive.  You could start your research here because of the quality of what you will find, but do not restrict yourself to this database if those searches don’t prove fruitful;

b.      JSTOR, another collection of full-text journals from a range of disciplines, but one which reaches much further back in time.  It also has the PMLA, the journal published by the MLA and thus the most important journal in our field;

c.       The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the best, most comprehensive, and most famous dictionary of the English language.  It not only gives the meanings of words, but also traces how those meanings have changed over time, which is especially important when you are writing on literature from an earlier period.  Words can reverse their meanings within a few short decades.