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Literature Resources

Literature Resources at Union County College Libraries

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Finding a Subject for Your Paper

One of the hardest things a student must do is finding a subject to write about.  The subject must be narrow enough that you can cover it in just a few pages, yet broad enough that you can find sufficient resources. 

No professor wants to read a paper that could be titled "All about XYZ."  Those papers are boring, and besides, encyclopedias do it better.  Instead, try to ask a question about the literary work that you are assigned, and answer it in your paper.  Think about the characters. Why do these characters feel/talk/behave as they do?

  • In Robert Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man," why does Silas return to the farm? 
  • In Susan Glaspell's "Trifles," how differently do the men and women at the farmhouse see the evidence?  What do their insights tell us about these characters?
  • Why does the old man, in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," go to sea alone?
  • Who is Jay Gatsby? How real is his love for Daisy?

There are many ways to read a work of literature, and depending on how you view the work, you might have different research needs.  Research questions like these will lead to sources beyond the primary text itself.  You may find  yourself exploring history, psychology, religion, or other works of literature.

  • In Robert Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man," how is Mary's judgement of Silas influenced by her religion?
  • How does Troy Maxon in August Wilson's "Fences" or Willie Loman in The Death of a Salesman" compare with Aristotle's idea of a tragic protagonist?
  • Trace the impact of the fashion magazine culture of the 1950s on Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby takes place during Prohibition.  How did Prohibition contribute to its atmosphere of moral decay? 

If you're having trouble finding a manageable topic, talk to a Reference Librarian.  Whatever your topic or interest might be, a Reference Librarian can help you manage the scope of your topic and find resources.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

  • Primary sources in literature would include those things written by the author: prose, poetry, fiction, drama, essays, and also personal documents such as diaries, letters, or wills. In addition to the author's own writings, primary sources might also include relevant documents from the author's lifetime written by others.  For example, any document written in Shakespeare's lifetime that sheds light on the politics, religion, medicine, fashion, social conditions, or any other ideas that might have influenced Shakespeare, could be considered a primary source for Shakespeare. 

    For current literature, the best places to find primary documents would be in print, in the Library or bookstore.  Anything published by a living author, or anything published within 75 years of an author's death can be assumed to be under copyright protections.  It would therefore not be available for free on the Internet.   Older writings, however, might very well be  in the public domain, available to all without charge.  A print version is still preferable, since scholarly editions will include criticism and notes that are very helpful to students.  However, whenever such items are not currently in print, the Internet might be the only place to find them.

 

  • Secondary sources in literature interpret, analyze, and comment on other authors' works. Most literary criticisms are considered to be secondary sources.  Secondary sources are written in a time after first-hand observation is no longer possible, but they are invaluable in explaining to modern readers the circumstances in which the author wrote and his works have been received.   Students frequently find that reading secondary sources will give them a lens through which to view a particular work that makes the whole work more meaningful and interesting. 

    The best places to find secondary sources are books, reference books, and journal articles.  Union County College Libraries contains many books containing literary criticism that can be found through the Library Catalog. Or, you can browse the shelves at for criticism on the  topic of your choice.  The Gale Literary Criticism books in Reference are especially useful for finding essays by known critics that will enhance your understanding and jump start your literary research paper.  Most contemporary secondary sources are copyright protected, and therefore not available for free on the Web. 
  • Tertiary resources include encyclopedias, bibliographies, textbooks, or indexes.  You go to a tertiary source to learn where to go for additional information.  An encyclopedia, such as Britannica (in print or online) or Wikipedia, will give an overview of the subject and then list other sources to use.  A bibliography is a list of books, articles, and other resources.
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