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English Literature: researching your dissertation: Getting an overview of your topic

This guide gives an overview of the range of resources available to you when researching your dissertation topic. Topics covered include developing effective search strategies and finding scholarly primary and secondary source material.

Getting an overview of Library resources

Researching your dissertation provides you with the opportunity to engage with a wide range of resources. This can seem overwhelming to begin with, but getting an overview of what resources the Library can provide to support your research is a good way to start.

There may be key databases, e-journals or reference works that you are unaware of that are directly relevant to your subject area. The online English Literature subject guide provides a summary of relevant Library resources including subject specific databases and full-text print and online books and journals. 

So take some time to familiarise yourself with all the resources on offer to you - both in the Library itself, and online via our e-subscriptions, by consulting the English Literature subject guide.

Getting an overview of your topic

Whether the subject of your dissertation research is author or genre-specific, or relating to another area of study within the discipline of English and American Literature, getting an overview of your topic will help provide context.

Encyclopedias, dictionaries and reference works are a good place to start this initial research as they provide concise summaries about a particular subject and you can often obtain relevant references/bibliographies.

Top tip: Following references cited in one work can be a really useful way of finding new research, so always look at the bibliography of a book or article.

Encyclopedias and reference works

Use encyclopedias:

  • for summaries
  • for lists of further reading
  • when starting a project

There are two key online resources which give access to hundreds of dictionaries and encyclopedias:

Some useful titles, like the ODNB - Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (for biographies of British men and women), are also listed on this page. There is a short video tutorial of how to use the ODNB at the bottom of this page.

Find more on the catalogue by searching for "English Literature encyclopedias". Many are available in full-text online, and some also provide thematic essays on specific authors and subject areas.

Handbooks and histories

The Oxford Handbooks and Cambridge Histories series can also provide very useful overviews of authors, topics and themes. These are generally organised as a series of essays. We have many of these titles available in print and online.  You can view some of these using the following links:

There is a short video tutorial of how to use Oxford Handbooks Online the bottom of this page.

Useful reference works: selected titles

These are just some of the reference works available to you: