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Introduction to American Writing: ENG 2502

Research help for the course, "Introduction to American Writing."

Search Effectively

magnifying glassUnlike Google, library databases often don't understand an entire sentence. So you'll need to break your topic down into the most important ideas - the keywords. Below are some literary-specific types of keywords:

  • Author – use the author’s last name. Use any pseudonyms or spelling variations.
    • Examples: E.M. Forster, Edward Morgan Forster, Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte)
  • Text – use the partial or full title of the text you’re examining. (tip: put the title in quotation marks).
  • Topic – use a topic related to your central focus and argument. Examples:
    • Specific characters – Hester Prynne, Bigger Thomas, Ariel, etc.
    • Theme – gender, nationalism, empire, race, diaspora, class, sexuality, identity, etc.
    • Technique – narration, characterization, metaphor, dialogue, etc.
    • Symbols – windows, roses, cages, lightness, darkness, etc.
    • Time period (literary or historical) – Victorian, Modernism, Harlem Renaissance, Medieval, etc.
    • Genre – poetry, drama, epistle, detective, bildungsroman, satire, criticism, etc.
    • Theory/Theorist – postcolonial, psychoanalysis, Said, Freud, etc.
    • Setting/Country/Region – homes, parks, monastery, Italy, British Empire, etc.

example of venn diagram using ANDUse the word AND to find only sources that mention both keywords.

Example: Toni Morrison AND trauma

AND lets you make demANDs with your search.

This search will bring back fewer results than searching either keyword on its own.

example of venn diagram using ORUse the word OR to expand your search with additional keywords.

Example: autobiography OR memoir 

OR gives you mORe.

This search will find sources that include either word, so you'll see more results than by searching for just one keyword.

asterisk Another suggestion is to try using the asterisk symbol ( * ). The asterisk is useful when you have word variations. Place the asterisk symbol at the end of the part of the word all of the variations share.

Example: poet*


This search will find sources that include poet, poets, poetry, poetics, poetical, etc.

example of venn diagram using both AND plus ORTry combining some of your related keywords together.

Example: Beloved AND (mothers OR families) 

Also, be efficient by choosing to combine literary types of keywords effectively. Below are examples:

Author AND Text
Author AND Topic
Text AND Topic
Text AND (Topic OR Topic)
Author AND (Topic OR Topic)

Try searching with subject terms. These are like standardized words and phrases used to describe the intellectual contents of a particular book, article, or film. Think of subject terms as official hashtags.

Find subject terms included on the information page of each book, article, or film in a library catalog or database. Many subject terms are linked, so you can select the link to find additional items with the same subject term. Or, you can copy and paste the subject term in a new search with additional keywords.

Example of one book's listed subject headings


Also, in the MLA International Bibliography database, you can search by the name of the author and/or text you are examining. Use the drop-down menu and select SA Primary Subject Author and/or SK Primary Subject Work.

search example using subject fields

Use "quotation marks" to search for a group of words in an exact order, such as a proper name, text title, or meaningful phrase.

Example: Plath AND "The Bell Jar"


search example using quotation marks around "The Bell Jar"

This will bring back results that only use that exact phrase (instead of individual words). Very useful when novels or poems have seemingly generic words in their titles.

search results screenMost library databases have search tools built in. Try some of these:

  • Topic/Subject: think of these as official hashtags. Use them to find sources about that subject.
  • Date: limit your search to sources published between specific years
  • Resource Type: limit your search to specific kinds of sources (e.g. newspapers, book chapters, datasets)
  • Library of Congress Classification: limit your search by call number range
  • Peer Reviewed: limit your search to scholarly journal articles

Look on the left and right of your search results, or for an "advanced search" page to find these tools - and more!

Quirks of Historical Documents

Narrative of the Proceedings Against the Pirates &coSearching for and reading historical documents from, say, the 15th-18th centuries, has its quirks. When working with databases that contain these older documents, remember to look for these options:

  • Variant spellings: Before the standardization of English, many words had a number of alternate spellings. Check to see if your database has a variant spellings feature, or enter variants manually. 
    • Examples: pyrate, pyracy, piracy, pirates, pyrates, buccaneer 
  • The long S: This symbol ſ was used when S appeared in the beginning and middle of a word.
  • U and V: These letters used to be interchangeable, with V appearing at the beginning of a word and U in the middle.
  • Dates: Some databases may permit searches outside of your date range, so take care to limit dates if necessary.