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ENG 201: Introduction to Literary Study

updated April 1, 2019

Library 3-2-1 Survey

Primary Sources

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Video - Learn the differences among primary, secondary, and tertiary sources while seeing examples for each type of resource. Created by Suffolk County Community College Library, JMM, 06-2012.

Primary Sources

A primary source is the work itself being discussed, and also, in research, materials written or created about it during the time period in which it was created.  Primary works can include newspaper articles, an author's correspondence, such as "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper,'" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, initial publication book reviews, diaries and letters, manuscript drafts, communication with publishers and collaborators, interviews, and speeches.

You can find books and articles and limit their publication date to your chose writer's time period using SuperSearch. The  JSTOR  peer reviewed journal collection is especially helpful because it offers historic coverage going back to first issues of journals...


You can find the first review of  The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe; With a Memoir by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, and Notices of His Life and Genius,

In SuperSearch, use the advanced search to search by an author/creator  to find his/her works and possibly collections of letters and other primary materials by that author. Using the keyword search finds everything associated with that author: both primary and secondary, and even tertiary items, which include encyclopedia entries and give the broadest overviews.



This is a union catalog of tens of thousands of libraries across the world, (world-cat!) that enables borrowing and lending.  You can request books, audiovisual materials, and even ask for photocopies of archival items using it.

Historical Newspaper Collections

Secondary Resources

Secondary Sources

These include critiques and analysis not from the lifespan or shortly thereafter of a writer, or more broadly, the time period of a literary movement. Journal articles and books that provide overviews fall into this category.  Analyses of a particular work or an author's ouevre over time- theoretical treatments using a cultural or political framework, such as New Historicism, feminism, colonialism, ecocriticism, or postmodernism, offering the author's interpretation, are secondary sources. In Super Search, you can narrow down your results by subject, or use the Advanced Search to search your author as a subject.

Finding resources on specific works, whether a short story, poem, play, novel, or film, is made easier in some of the literary databases that have a 'named work' search index.  MLA, Literature Resource Center, and Literature Criticism Online all have this option.  Using it will bring critiques of that work, instead of simply finding those words within the text as a general keyword, which may not be useful



[(essay date March 1969) In the following essay, Patrick discusses the thematic relationship between concepts of will and necessity in the story, drawing from the writings of American theologian Jonathan Edwards and British philosopher Joseph Priestley.]
Patrick, Walton R. "Melville's 'Bartleby' and the Doctrine of Necessity." Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, edited by Russel Whitaker and Laura A. Wisner-Broyles, vol. 193, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 4 Sept. 2017. Originally published in American Literature, vol. 41, no. 1, Mar. 1969, pp. 39-54.

Literary Criticism Databases

Background and Contextual Information

Reference (Tertiary) Sources

Reference materials are compilations of secondary and primary sources about authors, works, and literary movements. They consist of biographies, historical timelines, and compilations, such as anthologies similar to survey texts, and books such as Dictionary of Literary Biography and the Twayne's Author Series.  While these provide substantial background information, and can include full book chapters of analysis (secondary sources) or excerpts from peer reviewed journal articles, it's best to use these in tandem with primary and secondary materials.  Information from reference sources is designed to provide context for further exploration of a topic.

Literary Background Resources

Searching for Theoretical Approaches

You can combine your author or work with specific theoretical approaches. You'll find some have been treated more broadly than others, given an author's historical period and cultural milieu.  For example, taking an ecocritical approach to Kate Chopin's The Awakening may yield very few sources, whereas combining "awakening AND Chopin AND feminism" in a database like JSTOR, Literature Resource, or MLA, will bring you multiple results written over many decades.

All databases use the same or very similar search mechanisms to both limit and expand your results.

Advanced search techniques

Phrase Searching

Place several words within quotes to search those exact words in that exact order.

  • "masque of the red death"

  • "code switching"

Truncation and Wildcards

Use a symbol (usually * or ?) to search all words that start with entered letters.

  • fem* searches for feminism, feminine, female

  • eco*  searches ecological, ecology, ecocritical, ecocriticism, economic, economy, economical, etc.

  •  *hist* ​searches ahistorical, historicism, history, histories

Boolean Operators

AND searches for both terms, OR searches for either term, NOT omits a term.

  • "herman melville" AND slav* NOT "benito cereno"

  • "queer stud*" OR gender