Chapter 1. Research Methods

Table of Contents

Guides to research methods offer essential introductions to the methods and tools associated with the kinds of research done within a discipline.

General Guides


Altick, Richard D., and John J. Fenstermaker. The Art of Literary Research. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1993. 353 pp. PR56.A68 807′.2.

A guide to research techniques, emphasizing “the irreducible element of brain work that lies at the heart of productive research” and the ways in which traditional methods of research and “historically oriented literary scholarship” can work in tandem with recent theoretical and critical approaches. The discussions of the vocation and spirit of scholarship, scholarly occupations (biography, textual study, authorship attribution, source investigation, reception and influence study, and historical research), the tracking down of materials (some information is outdated and computer-accessible resources need fuller treatment), major libraries, note-taking (the discussion on mechanics is more applicable to the era of fountain pens than to that of laptops), and the composing process are full of sound practical advice and leavened with instructive examples. Concludes with a selective bibliography and exercises keyed to the text. Indexed by persons, titles, and subjects. The standard vade mecum of methods of literary research, The Art of Literary Research should be among the well-thumbed volumes in every literary critic or scholar’s personal library.

In contrast, The Handbook to Literary Research, ed. Delia da Sousa Correa and W. R. Owens, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2010; 257 pp.) should be avoided because of its scattershot and superficial treatment of important resources (e.g., Google and Wikipedia receive much more attention than MLAIB [G335] and ABELL [G340]).

Sporting an equally promising title, Research Methods for English Studies, ed. Gabriele Griffin (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005; 248 pp.) is long on anecdote and fatally deficient on practical advice and discussion of basic methodology (e.g., the chapter on archives focuses on the “romance” of the archive, the chapter on textual analysis uses a painting as an example, and there is a discussion of “Creative Writing as a Research Method”).

Tory Young, Studying English Literature: A Practical Guide (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008; 172 pp.)—an elementary guide to writing critical essays with a completely inadequate discussion of MLA citation style—is best avoided.

For an entertaining and instructive account of the literary detective work behind some major scholarly discoveries, see Altick, The Scholar Adventurers, rpt. with a new pref. (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1987; 338 pp.).


Barzun, Jacques, and Henry F. Graff. The Modern Researcher. 6th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2004. 322 pp. D13.B334 001.4′32.

A multidisciplinary guide that emphasizes techniques important in historical research. Of most use to literature scholars are the discussions of note-taking, the researcher’s virtues (accuracy, love of order, logic, honesty, self-awareness, imagination), verification, the establishment of dates, kinds of evidence, and bias. Indexed by persons and subjects. Some chapters suffer from discursiveness and an attempt to address both the experienced scholar and the neophyte (who will be hampered by numerous incomplete and sometimes inaccurate citations for basic sources and will be misled by the shameless hyping of resources published by the Gale Group and Scribner’s, which—like the publisher of this edition—were subsidiaries of Thomson in 2004), and overall the current edition gives short shrift to electronic resources. This guide offers an instructive overview of research techniques, but literary scholars will find Altick and Fenstermaker, Art of Literary Research (A5), more concise and immediately helpful.

The third edition of Thomas Mann’s The Oxford Guide to Library Research (New York: Oxford UP, 2005; 293 pp.)—a substantial improvement over the second edition (1998; 316 pp.) and its predecessor (A Guide to Library Research Methods [New York: Oxford UP, 1987; 199 pp.])—is organized “around nine different methods of subject searching,” including controlled vocabulary searching, browsing classified book stacks, keyword searching, and related record searching. His advice on locating literary criticism (pp. 248–50) should be ignored, however. David Beasley’s Beasley’s Guide to Library Research (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000; 206 pp.), an inadequately updated version of How to Use a Research Library (New York: Oxford UP, 1988; 164 pp.), is an elementary, frequently inaccurate, outdated, and untrustworthy guide addressed to novices.


Nicholls, David G., ed. Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. 3rd ed. New York: MLA, 2007. 370 pp. PB29.I58 407.2.

A collection of fifteen essays, each by a major scholar, designed as an introduction to selected fields of linguistic and literary study: linguistics; language, culture, and society; language acquisition and language learning; rhetoric; composition; poetics; textual scholarship; literary interpretation; historical scholarship; comparative literature; cultural studies; feminist and gender studies; ethnic and minority studies; border studies; and translation studies. A concluding essay addresses the issue of the scholar in society. The authors typically “discuss the nature, value, philosophy, and underlying assumptions of their subjects; outline the history of relevant scholarship; survey major issues and approaches of the past, present, and foreseeable future; and conclude with suggestions for further reading.” Although directed to a student audience, the essays offer authoritative and balanced introductions for all nonspecialists.