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English 199: Introduction to the Study of Literature


In many upper level English classes, you'll be assigned research papers or projects that ask you to find and incorporate information about the authors and works of literature that you're studying. You might be asked to find additional "primary" or "secondary" sources, or to make sure that the secondary sources you find are "scholarly." But what do those terms mean? This page offers a brief overview of the different types of information sources you may use when researching and writing about literature.

Primary Sources

Primary sources vary by field of study, but to begin with it's useful to think of them as providing direct or firsthand evidence about whatever it is that you're studying.  They’re the original materials on which other analysis is based. Some examples of primary sources in the field of literature:

  • a novel
  • a short story
  • a poem
  • a play
  • a work of narrative non-fiction like an essay or a memoir

It's important to keep in mind that what is considered a primary source can be different in other fields of study. For instance, in history, a memoir written by someone who lived through a particular time period might be considered a primary source, but not a novel. In the sciences, examples of primary sources are a report of the results of an experiment or a report of direct observations.

See the Tools for Finding Primary Sources page of this guide for help finding primary sources in literature. If you're interested in learning about primary and secondary sources in other disciplines, check out the Library Research Guides in other subject areas.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources offer analysis of primary sources. They’re called secondary because they are a step removed from primary sources. Some examples of secondary sources in the field of literature:

  • a review of a novel, short story collection, book of poetry, or play
  • a scholarly journal article that examines and discusses a work (novel, story, poem, play) or works by an author
  • a book about an author’s works, a literary movement like Modernism, or a genre like the Gothic Novel
  • a biography of an author's life that provides context for the time and circumstances in which they wrote

See the Tools for Finding Secondary Sources page of this guide for help finding secondary sources about literature.

Tertiary Sources (a.k.a. reference sources)

Reference works, sometimes known as "tertiary sources" (think third degree of removal from primary sources), offer a concise overview of primary and secondary information. You don't usually read these all the way through, but use them to look up a word, person, place, thing, or concept. Some examples of reference works:

  • an encyclopedia
  • a dictionary
  • an atlas
  • a handbook
  • a directory

You’re probably already familiar with general reference works like Encyclopedia Britannica, the World Book Encyclopedia, or even Wikipedia, but the library also has subject-specific reference works like the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature and the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. These can be useful for:

  • Quickly familiarizing yourself with an author or literary movement that’s new to you
  • Identifying additional primary sources by an author
  • Generating paper topic ideas - a reference article might discuss major themes that recur in an author’s works
  • Generating a list of keywords to use when you begin searching the library catalog and research databases for more information on your topic
  • Some reference works even include mini bibliographies of additional secondary books and articles to consult for more in depth information about a topic

See the Literature Reference Sources page of this guide for a list of reference sources useful for the study of literature (all of these are available online!).

Scholarly Sources

When it comes to secondary sources, it’s important to consider that there’s more than one kind of secondary source. Usually when an instructor asks you to find a secondary source on your topic, they want you to find a scholarly secondary source.

What are scholarly sources?

Scholarly sources, sometimes called academic sources, are written by scholars for an intended audience of other scholars and students. These scholars are experts, usually people like your professors, who have the highest degree/level of credentials available in their field. Scholarly publications are one of the formal ways that scholars communicate their research with each other so they can build off each other's research to collectively advance knowledge in their field as a whole.  As you study any college level subject, you too are getting an introduction to this practice of scholarship that involves not just producing, for example, a close reading of a literary work, but doing so in conversation with what other scholars have had to say about your topic.

Some examples of scholarly publications:

  • scholarly journals like Contemporary Literature, English Literary History (ELH)Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA)
  • scholarly books like Activism and the American Novel: Religion and Resistance in Fiction by Women of ColorShakespeare's Literary Authorship
  • conference proceedings (contain papers presented at conferences)

The two types of publications you'll probably use most frequently are scholarly journals and books. But how do you tell if an article or book you're reading is scholarly?

Signs that you're reading a scholarly article:

  • The author usually is an expert in their field (often someone with a PhD affiliated with an academic institution)
  • There may be an abstract (summary) at the beginning, though this is more common in the sciences and social sciences than in the humanities
  • All sources are cited using parenthetical citations, footnotes, and/or endnotes
  • A works cited list and/or bibliography
  • Formal use of language 
  • Subject-specific terms (since it’s written for an intended audience of scholars, the author assumes you know something about the subject already so you’ll find they use the jargon - special terminology - of the field)
  • The journal publishing the article uses peer review

Signs that you're reading a scholarly book:

  • Same signs as for articles plus . . .
  • The publisher is a university press (for example, Harvard University Press, the University of Toronto Press, etc.) or a trade press that specializes in academic publishing or has an academic division (for example, Routledge or Bloomsbury Academic). When in doubt if it's an academic press or not, ask your instructor or a librarian!

What is peer review?

Scholarly journal and book publishers use a process called peer review when considering which article or book manuscripts to accept for publication.  Usually an editor will make a first decision on whether or not to consider a manuscript for publication and, if it passes that test, the manuscript is shared with other scholars in the author's field (the author's "peers") for further evaluation. Even if those reviewers recommend the manuscript for publication, they'll often make suggestions for revisions. For more information about the peer review process, watch this Peer Review in 3 Minutes video from North Carolina State University Libraries.

Is there an easy way to find scholarly secondary sources?

Yes! Many of the library's databases very specifically search only scholarly sources or they have built-in limiters (also known as filters) that allow you to target scholarly, peer-reviewed information. The descriptions of the databases listed on the Tools for Finding Secondary Sources page of this guide include will tell you if it's a scholarly-only database or how to use the database's limiters to target scholarly/peer-reviewed sources.

A note about books: usually the scholarly/peer-reviewed filters only work for journal articles. If you're using a database that exclusively searches scholarly publications (like JStor or ProjectMUSE), you can assume that any books you find there are scholarly. If you're using a database like Discover that searches all kinds of publications, look at the publisher name check to see if the books you find are published by an academic press. Still have questions? Ask a librarian or your instructor!

Popular Sources

What are popular sources?

A popular information source is a book or article in a publication intended for a general audience (also called a lay or nonexpert audience) and may or may not written by someone who is an expert on the subject covered.

Some examples of popular publications: 

  • A general interest (covering many topics) magazine like People or Time
  • A special interest (covering a specific topic) magazine like Sports Illustrated
  • A newspaper like the New York Times, Washington Post, or Daily Hampshire Gazette
  • A book about any topic written for a general audience, like Norrie Epstein's The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard or Neil deGrasse Tyson's Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.

Signs you're reading a popular article or book:

  • The author may or may not be an expert on the subject covered
  • The language used may be more informal 
  • It's written in way that anyone can understand, no prior knowledge of the subject required
  • Sources may or may not be cited and, if they are, possibly only in the body of the text (newspapers and magazines often do this)

What are popular sources useful for?

While most of the time your college instructors prefer that you use scholarly secondary sources, there are some times when popular secondary sources can be useful, too.  For example:

  • Book reviews may be the only secondary analysis available about a recently published book or the works of a newer or lesser known author. Popular sources like newspapers and magazines that publish new issues on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis are more likely to quickly cover these works than a scholarly publication. National newspapers like the New York Times, for example, even have comparatively lengthy book reviews that are sometimes written by other authors and scholars.
  • Books or articles that take a complicated subject and explain it for a general audience can be a good way to gain a better understanding of a subject that's new to you. Two earlier examples mentioned, The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, are written by PhDs in the fields of literature and astrophysics respectively. You might not cite these works in a research paper, but you could use them to supplement your studies and better prepare yourself to read and understand the scholarly literature.


Trade sources

What are trade sources?

Trade publications contain information about a particular industry and are intended for an audience of people who work in that industry. They're usually written by professionals actively working in an industry, or by journalists who have knowledge of an industry. You probably wouldn't use a trade source in a literature research paper, but you might consult one if you're interested in creative writing and would like to more about the work of being a writer.

Some examples of trade publications about writing as a profession:

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