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Comparative Literature Research Guide

Research in Comparative Literature

This guide is intended to introduce you to some strategies and resources for comparative literature research.

In Comparative Literature, you might do "traditional" literary research, where you read the criticism that other scholars have produced about a work. OR, you might find yourself taking a more multidisciplinary approach -- researching history, anthropology, philosophy, or sociology to put works in their appropriate context.

This guide provides some pointers for each approach. Use the menu on the left to navigate.

There are many similarities between research for comparative literature and other kinds of literary research, so you may also want to look into our guides to other literatures, which you can find listed on the left of this page. 

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism, speaking broadly, is scholarly, analytic writing about literature. Thus, it's probably similar to at least some of the writing that you're doing. When you read or cite literary criticism, you are entering into a conversation with others who are interested in the same work, genre, or author.

Databases

In general, the best databases for literary criticism are:

Books

If you're interested in books, you should search:

Specialized Databases

The library also subscribes to a few databases that specifically cover literature of specific languages or cultures:

Searching for Books

A lot of good literary (and historical!) scholarship is published in books (both print and e-books), so it's worth looking at them, not just journal articles. In fact, because the author has more space to provide context, books are often more accessible to those new to a topic than journal articles are.

When you are reading academic books, you usually don't have to read the whole book! It's totally fine to find the chapter on your topic and just read (and cite) that.

Where to Search

How to Search

OneSearch doesn't search only books, but you can limit to books if that's what you're looking for, using the "Material Type" menu in the search screen. If you just want e-books, not print, you can limit to "Full Text Online."

Screenshot of OneSearch. Some results from a search for Gabriela Mistral are showing. On the right, the option "Full Text Online" is selected, with an arrow pointing to it for emphasis.

The menu on the left includes several other options to limit your search, including language. Additionally, there are a few search strategies that work especially well for books about literature.

Subject Searching

Books in OneSearch are organized by subject -- that is, according to a specific vocabulary that describes what the books are about.

Subject headings are specific phrases that are consistent throughout the catalog. If you have the right subject heading, you should be able to find all the books on that subject. When it comes to literature, this is really useful, because author's names are subject headings. Thus, if you search using an author's name, you should be able to find all the criticism of their work.

If you only want to find books about them, not by them, you can limit your search to subjects, like this:

A screenshot from OneSearch. The search interface is shown; the search term in the first box reads: akiko yosano. To the right, "Books" is selected from the "Material Type" menu. To the left, the "Any Field" menu is expanded, and the "Subject" option is highlighted.

 

Because of this, it's often more fruitful to search for an author's name than the title of a specific work. If there are a lot of books about an author, you can add the title of the work to your search (for instance, Dante Alighieri as a subject brings up over 700 book results; adding The Divine Comedy brings it down to around 100). 

Subjects can be useful for other kinds of searches as well. Even if you don't use the subject search in the menu, they still make good search terms, especially for books. The following types of things are often subjects:

  • National literatures:  terms such as Chinese literature or German poetry
  • Literary movements or genres: terms like Modernism or or Magical realism
  • Names of religions or philosophiesTaoism, or existentialism. These can be very useful if you want more information about the context in which a work was produced. 
  • Authors' Identities, like this: American literature -- African American authors or Gays' writings, American, or Women authors

Since comparative literature is quite interdisciplinary, you may find yourself consulting books about literary criticism, history, philosophy, or the social sciences. Whenever you're searching library resources, it's a good idea to check the subject headings, as they can often bring you to more resources about the same subject.

Books on the Shelf

Books on the same subject are usually grouped together on the shelf.  Most books on literature are shelved on level 5 of the library. In the Library of Congress system, books about literature have call numbers that start with the letter P -- PL for Asian literature, PQ for literature in the Romance languages, and so on.

Searching for Articles

The databases listed above are all good choices for searching for literary scholarship.  Here are a few tips for using them to find articles.

Taking Language into Account

If you are researching works of literature that have been translated into English, should you search by their original title, or their translated title?  It depends on where you're searching!

  • If you are using a full-text database, like JSTOR or Project MUSE, articles may refer to either the translated title or the original. If you want to be comprehensive, you can use OR to search for both (like this: "Une Si Longue Lettre" OR "So Long a Letter")
  • In MLA International Bibliography, works are indexed under their original titles, so you should use the original title to search.
  • In other databases, check the subject headings.  If you're not sure, try the approach I outlined for the full-text databases.

If you are searching for criticism in a specific language, then you should use the search features to limit to that language (but note this is not the same as limiting to criticism about works in a particular language).

National Literature/ Century/ Genre

If you are not searching for criticism on a specific work, but are instead researching the literature of a country, or a time period, or a genre, you can certainly try keyword searches in any of the databases mentioned above, but there are specific features for this in MLA International Bibliography.

Articles

Here's an example:

Screenshot of MLA International Bibliogrpahy search interface. The search term in the first box is: nigerian. The menu to the right of that box has LT Subject Literature selected. In the second box, the search term is: novel. In the third box, the search term is: 1900-1999. For the second and third boxes, nothing is selected in the menu on the right. This search would bring back criticism of twentieth-century Nigerian novels. In MLA International Bibliography, you can use the Subject Literature option in the search menu to limit to literature from a specific country or region. You can also search for criticism on works from a specific time period by searching for the century, as shown above (1900-1999) -- note that this is not very flexible; 1800-1899 works but 1850-1899 does NOT. Finally, the subject indexing in MLA always includes the genre of the work in question, so terms like "novel" are very searchable.

Books

Books can also be very useful for these broader searches. If you want to understand a subject like the Nigerian novel, a book is more likely to attempt to tackle it than an article (because it's too much for an article to cover).

The subject headings in OneSearch sometimes address literary themes in a way that can help you search for them. For instance, you may see many that look like:  "_______ in literature" or "Literature and ________"

Some examples:

  • Consciousness in literature
  • Literature and history
  • Other (philosophy) in literature
  • Slavery in literature
  • Venice (Italy) in literature

So searches like this will often return relevant books.

As discussed above, there are also subject headings related to genres, national literatures, and authors' identities, so those, too, often make good searches in OneSearch.

Interlibrary Loan

If you find a great book or article that isn't available in the library, you can still get it! This will come in handy as you research broad and varied aspects of literature.