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English Literature: researching your dissertation: Finding primary sources

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.

Printed primary source materials in the Library

Once you have decided on your dissertation topic you will need to ensure you have read in detail the relevant primary source material, whether this is by a specific author, or relates to a particular genre, literary period or some other topic related to the discipline.  

You can use the Library catalogue Enterprise to search for primary sources either by author, title or by topic.

See our search tips for further help on finding:

Enterprise also provides information on rare book and archive collections held at Special Collections

Online primary source material: Library subscriptions

The Library also subscribes to a large number of online full-text primary sources. These can be used to supplement your research and, in some cases such as with EEBO and ECCO, will provide access to materials in their original published form.

Guides to using some of these resources are available online from the database suppliers:

Talks and discussions held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, during the period 1982-1993, featuring leading writers, artists and filmmakers. - See more at:

Internet resources

Related websites

There are also many freely available online resources of primary source material like the British Library's Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians website, Renascence editions or the First World War Poetry Archive. For a range of freely available web resources sorted by topic or genre, see the Websites page of the English Literature online subject guide.

Recorded author interviews

As well as printed material, sound recordings of interviews may also prove useful. The following are a few of the archives available which relate to English and American Literature.

Contemporary newspapers and periodicals

Contemporary newspapers and periodicals can also provide useful primary source material.

  • Articles may provide context to the historic, political or social concerns of the period you are studying, or about which your author based their work.
  • Reviews of particular works or productions, will give you an idea of how these were received at the time they were first published/produced and, for example, may indicate whether this influenced future editions or ways of promoting authors and their works.
  • 19th Century publications can illustrate how some major authors first published their work in serial form, e.g. Tess of the Durbervilles (in The Graphic - accessible from 19th Century British Newspapers) or Hard Times (in Household Words - accessible via British Periodicals).

For further guidance on finding newspapers, and the range of titles available to you, see our information on the Library website.

Using Special Collections for your dissertation research

Special Collections provides access to a great deal of primary source materials including rare books, authors' papers and archive collections such as the Archive of British Publishing and Printing

Examples of these include:

You can search the collections by category or keyword, or browse an A-Z list.

If you would like to make use of the University's Special Collections for your dissertation research, a good place to start would be the English and American Literature Subject Explorer. This guide has been created to help you make use of the University of Reading Special Collections in your dissertation.

English DissertationSubject Explorer

Location Register of English Literary Manuscripts and Letters

The Location Register includes information about the manuscript holdings of British and Irish repositories of all sizes, from the British Library to small-town museums, and about literary authors of all genres, from major poets to minor science fiction writers and romantic novelists.

Further information about the Register, and how to search it.