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Foundation Certificate in English Literature: a guide to online resources: Putting it all together

Researching your essay: an example

Knowing that you have access to one of the world's best library collections is both comforting and overwhelming. One of the most common questions must be 'where do I start?'

The following is intended to be a brief example of searching for useful resources which could be used in one of your essays.

Charles Dickens Blogging, after William Powell Frith' Image created by Mike Licht,

Example essay question:

"In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!" The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.' (DICKENS, Hard Times)

Consider the representation of education in the works of Dickens.

So, how would you go about conducting your research on this topic?


What are Primary and Secondary sources?

'Primary sources' are original works written by an author. For example:

  • Novels / Poems / Plays
  • Essays
  • Journals
  • Diaries
  • Autobiographies

'Secondary sources' are critical works written about an author or their work, or a certain aspect of literature or language. For example:


1: Primary sources

Start with your reading list! This should be the beginning (but by no means the end) of your search for suitable resources.

If there are specific novels / poems which are relevant to your subject read these through. If you want to search for specific themes within them, and their usage/context, then try using the online versions of texts where available.

For example, LION (Literature Online) provides full text access to Dickens' novels, so you could search the whole of Hard Times for words like 'school', 'education', 'learning', in a matter of a few minutes.

Or, you could look at some of the publications Dickens edited, such as Household Words and All the Year Round in case he discusses education in any of his editorials. [Both are available online via Oxford eJournals and in print in the English Faculty Library.]

Before you start searching for resources to help with your essay, make a list of synonyms relating to your topic so you can ensure that you obtain results across all related resources.

2: Secondary sources

Again, start with your reading list - but you can find much more than the recommended texts by making use of our online resources, such as ejournals. [The journals: Dickens Quarterly, Journal of Victorian culture and Victorian literature and culture are all available online, so you could easily search these titles for articles about your topic. ] 

Even if the books on your list are all out on loan, you can usually find something similar via SOLO. Or you can search SOLO for books relating to specific topics. Take a look at the PDF link at the bottom of this box for a screenshot by screenshot example.

You can also look through bibliographies in the books you have already found useful, to see if there are further references you can follow up, and then look these up on SOLO to see if they are available on Oxford.

Search for keywords in online eBook collections like the Cambridge Companions series - if you go to the online version  you can search not only one title, but across the whole series. This means you will pick up references to 'Dickens' and 'education' in all the Cambridge Companions, e.g the Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, not just those titles specifically on Dickens and his work.

3: Using online bibliographies to find journal articles

Online bibliographic databases are a great way of searching for journal articles and book chapters about your research topic / essay theme.

One of the best for English is the MLA Bibliography. The MLA Bibliography is an excellent database for finding articles in the subject areas of literature, linguistics, language and folklore. It provides searchable indexed records from over 4,000 journals, has coverage from 1926 to the present and provides links to the library catalogue, so you can immediately see if the articles you have selected are available in Oxford.