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Literatures in English Research Guide

The following is intended as a general guide to research in literature.

Types of historical sources

In addition to literary analysis, you may need some historical information. For instance:

Historical Primary Sources -- that is, first-hand evidence from that historical period.Old Map

  • Newspapers
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Official documents

Historical Secondary Sources

  • Books analyzing historical events
  • Articles analyzing historical events

These are a little different from literary sources. 

Primary Historical Sources

History-Specific Databases

Full-Text Collections


Document Collections

Primary Sources

QC offers access to several collections of digitized historical documents.  

These are fascinating and provide a real record of the past--not just books, but newspapers, speeches, images, and other primary sources.

However, they can be a little daunting to search. 


There are several useful ways of browsing:

  • By historical event
  • By subject
  • By collection

The "Browse" menu in Black Thought and Culture and Women in Social Movements allows all of these. Nineteenth Century Collections Online doesn't allow the same kind of browsing, but it does group its materials into "collections."

The "Document Projects" In Women and Social Movements group documents by their relationship to specific social movements.


Searching for primary documents is not the same as searching for journal articles!

There are several reasons for this:

  • You need a much more specific date range. 
  • Older writings may use a different vocabulary. 
  • You are searching for evidence rather than analysis; this means that the terms you use to describe a thing probably don't appear in the documents you are searching.
  • The documents you are searching are much more diverse and may be written for many different audiences.

Keep this in mind when you are choosing your keywords. Use words that you think a writer at this time would use for this audience.

Names are easy; ideas are difficult.

Search Tips:

  • Limit by date. If you are researching the ideology of slavery, you will find very different ideas expressed in 1859 than in 1700.
  • Eighteenth Century Collections OnlineNineteenth Century Collections Online, and Slavery and Anti-Slavery have subject or document categories which allow you to search only scientific documents, only literary works, only newspapers, etc. 
  • Use names of people or events if they are available. Searching "John Brown" or "Harpers Ferry" will turn up very different results than "abolitionism."
  • Use the vocabulary of the people writing the sources. If you are looking for evidence of anti-Catholic sentiment, "Popery" may sometimes be a better search term than "Catholicism."

As with any search, you will acquire additional useful vocabulary along the way. 


Historical Journal Searches

Secondary Sources

Searching secondary sources in history has many similarities to searching secondary sources in literature, but there are additional resources you may want to consider.

History-Specific Databases

The databases that cover history exclusively (America: History and Life and Historical Abstracts) allow you to limit your search by historical period, finding only the articles about a particular date range. This is very helpful for more general searches.  

For instance, a search about abolitionism from 1830 to 1870 can provide context for events in that particular date range.  

"Historical Period" field in America: History and Life

You may also want to note the index terms and use them for searching, as you would in many other databases. 

Full-Text Databases

JSTOR and ProjectMUSE have the same advantages and drawbacks when you are searching for historical analysis as they do when you are searching for literary criticism.

Some advice:

  • Do NOT use dates, especially date ranges! They are unlikely to correspond exactly to the ones mentioned by the author.
  • Use names or specific, concrete words as search terms--words that the authors of articles are also likely to use. 
  • If you are very interested in analysis of a particular word or phrase, these are good places to look for that.


A lot of important historical scholarship is published as books. Since books often give good overviews, this might often be a better starting place than a database.

Just like authors, historical figures can easily be searched using the subject search.