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EH501 -- Introduction to Graduate Study in English: Books (Reference)

This LibGuide is the companion guide to the EH501 course offered by the English Department at Jacksonville State University. It is intended for graduate students and rising professionals in the field, and its content may be used to complement other EH cou

Page Overview

This page discusses reference books and their importance in the research process.

Reference Books: Sources

What are Reference Books?

Reference books

  • are used in the topic-narrowing and information-gathering stages of the research process
  • are of many types: bibliographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes, etc.
  • fall into two broad categories
    • reference sources (e.g., dictionaries, encyclopedias)
    • reference tools (bibliographies, indexes) 

What are Reference Sources?

Reference sources, especially dictionaries and encyclopedias, are used early in the research process, before information source seeking begins, and can be used to

  • obtain background information and position a topic within its context prior to beginning research
  • narrow a topic to a subject suitable for a research assignment
  • identify unfamiliar people, places, and things pertaining to the broad topic
    • for some authors and subjects are "cutting edge" sources
      • contain entries on authors and subjects that have not received much attention in the journal and monograph literature
  • by providing contextual information, can sometimes redirect the focus of a research project 

In addition to assisting in research, these works also can                                                            

  • help students prepare for exams (especially comprehensive examinations for degrees)                                           
  • provide students enough basic information to participate in class discussions
  • help teachers prepare lesson plans for things which will be covered in class but which are not a major part of the syllabus   



Search for Electronic Reference Books

Start with these Databases to Locate eReference Books


To find electronic reference books on a topic, you can either search the Library Catalog, or you can search one of the following databases:

Print Reference Series Books

Many academic publishers publish stand-alone print references sources -- dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. -- but some offer entire sets/series of reference books.  While portions of these series may be available digitally, rarely are they all, and therefore for complete coverage the print volumes should be consulted as well.  Below are links to some of these series.  Houston Cole Library may not have all the print volumes in any one set, but the series themselves are well-represented.  To find out which volumes of each series the library owns, perform a series search in JaxCat Advanced Search.



Books are digest anthologies

  • do not contain complete articles but only excerpts, with complete original source citation included
  • provide a suitable substitute for HCL's bound periodicals, which currently are in storage at Fort McClellan
  • contain entries which are not in the Gale digital literary series databases

[To these add Shakespearean Criticism and Dictionary of Literary Biography]

Salem Press

Publishes multiple reference encyclopedia series, among which are

Critical Insights

  • separate series focus on authors, works, themes
  • distills the best from literary criticism of the world's most-studied literature
  • offers 10-14 highly in-depth, yet accessible, essays that provide researchers with many avenues to learn about and study the subject.
    • critical lens: a close reading of a work from a specific standpoint
    • cultural & historical context: addresses the influence of the time period, and what makes the content relevant to today's audience
    • compare & contrast: analyzes the subject in light of another work or author
    • critical reception: outlines major critiques and reviews of the work
    • critical readings: the heart of each volume -- provides full analysis of key issues and interpretations of the subject

Critical Survey(s)

  • Author-driven series
    • o provides in-depth analysis of authors, dramatists, poets or works within a genre
    • o discusses the history, style, theme, importance and critical analysis of each author's most significant works
      • offers general analysis of an author's style, themes, etc., as well as synopses of individual works

Masterplots II

  • work-driven companion series to Critical Survey
    • multiple series, each focusing on a specific genre and canonic literary works within that genre

Why Use Reference Books?

Companions, Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, Guides, Handbooks, etc. (Reference Sources)

  • situate a subject within its context, and can be idea generators and springboards for launching research in a new direction
  • function as a prologue to journal articles and monographs 
  • provide information on writers who have not yet gotten much critical attention in journals or books
    • for some assignments, the terms of the assignment cannot be fulfilled without using reference sources; there just are not enough other types of sources available
  • may offer brief bibliographies at the end of each entry

Bibliographies/Indexes (Reference Tools)

  • index published research/scholarship on a given topic
    • sometimes offer a literature review of significant scholarship as part of the forematter
  • fill the void of scholarship published before 1985, which is about when database coverage takes over
  • indicate whether an article has been reprinted; databases index only the source of the original publication
  • index scholarship that databases do not
    • page range discussions within monographs

Important Reference Tools

Essay and General Literature Index: indexes essays in books and is the only index which covers books exclusively (no journal coverage); useful for researching authors who are being rediscovered

English Novel Explication: citation-only bibliography set which indexes articles, books, and parts of books

G. K. Hall Explication bibliographies: genre-based citation-only bibliographies which index articles, books, and parts of books

G. K. Hall Reference Guides: provides abstracts (annotations) and includes reprints 

Garland Annotated Bibliographies: provides abstracts (annotations) and includes reprints 

Twentieth-Century Short Story Explication: citation-only bibliographic series which covers 1900-2000 and indexes journal articles and page ranges within monographs


Annotated Bibliographies

What are Annotated Bibliographies?

Among print bibliographies and indexes, the gold standard is the annotated bibliography.  Annotated bibliographies

  • contain the location information for the item (the citation)
  • provide a brief summary of the item (the annotation) 
    • can vary in length from just a few lines to multiple paragraphs
      •   can summarize the source (descriptive annotation)
      •   can evaluate the source (critical annotation) 
        •   functions like the abstract attached to many records in electronic databases
          •  promotes efficiency and effectiveness
          • helps the researcher compare the content of the item with the type of information sought  

Additionally, annotated bibliographies

  • trace research/scholarship previous to the coverage provided by electronic databases (deep backfiles)
  • may have internal cross references, which most database entries lack
  • often list reprints of an item in addition to its initial publication (databases do not);  while Houston Cole Library may not have the book or journal in which the item initially appeared, it often has one of the reprints

What Role do Annotated Bibliographies Play in Research and Publication?

An academic career in higher education requires research and publication

  • a publishable piece of writing should either say something new (new topic) or say something new about something old (new perspective) 
    • leads to canon expansion, as scholars seek to discover "new" (really, old and mostly forgotten) writers to research
      • can take the researcher back decades, long before coverage in databases begins
        •   old print bibliographies (and periodical indexes) fill this gap   



Reference Books: Tools

What are Reference Tools?

In literature, reference tools 

  • are finding aids used following the background gathering and subject focusing that is done via reference sources 
    • presents content as lists (similar to a database Results List), generally of secondary sources germane to the topic  (Information in reference sources usually is presented as paragraphs.)
    • in this context, primarily consist of indexes and bibliographies

Reference tools primarily are used to

  • find more in-depth sources (essays, journal articles, monographs) pertaining to the research subject      
  • locate older source materials that database backfiles are not deep enough to access

JaxCat Advanced Search for Reference Books

There is no perfect JaxCat search for reference books.  There is no search guaranteed to bring up all the relevant items and only the relevant items; the most that can be hoped for is a partial harvest of relevant item records.  Of the searches available, the simplest would be 

Advanced Search top box = person/thing being researched

  • sometimes full name works best; sometimes last name only works best
    • if using full name, make sure to set the middle dropdown menu to as a phrase

Scroll down to Add Limits

  • All Locations = Reference Collections  <search>
    • choose a title from the results list, click on it to get the item record, then from the record click on the most promising Subject to get an expanded list of just that subject/reference book type
      • from the same item record, if there is a series line, the series title can be clicked to harvest a list of the books in that series owned by HCL
        • to see all the books published in a given series, do an internet search to view the series's (or publisher's) homepage

NOTE:  If you are not sure about HCL's reference collection, which for literature would comprise the collection on seventh floor along with parts of the collections on floors six and three, consult the librarian on that particular floor.  Better still, become familiar with these collections yourself.  While some of these books are traceable through search engines, with very few exceptions the contents of these books are not traceable through anything.  You just have to know the books are there  .  .  .  and how to use them.   





Writing Annotated Bibliographies