As you begin a research project, you'll need to find your bearings: background information about authors & works, context in literary movements, culture, and history, and important scholarship. Talking to your professor is the best starting point. These resources (and talking to your subject librarian) are a close second:
This guide includes resources for finding both primary and secondary sources. When you are searching in the library, it's important to know that Library of Congress call numbers are arranged first by geography:
... and then within those areas by chronological period. Within chronological periods, you'll find works listed alphabetically by author, which are shelved along with critical commentary about their works.
Eras in English literature are often identified by a mix of categories, with their beginnings and endings marked by historical events (e.g. the Norman invasion in 1066) or by reigns (e.g., Elizabethan or Victorian) or by artistic movements (e.g., modernism). Sometimes resources are named simply by centuries. This brief table should help you identify year ranges of eras.
|Old English or Anglo-Saxon||c450-1066||Beowulf, Caedmon's Hymn|
|Middle English, Medieval, or Anglo-Norman||1066-1500||Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight|
|Renaissance or Early Modern (often split into Elizabethan, Jacobean, and late)||1500-1660||William Shakespeare, The King James Bible, Robert Herrick|
|Restoration||1660-1700||John Milton, Aphra Behn, John Dryden|
18th Century (or Age of Reason), often divided into Augustan and Age of Sensibility
Augustan: Alexander Pope, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift
Age of Sensibility: Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen
|Romantic (also early 19th C. or Regency)||1798-1837||William Blake, William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, Samuel Coleridge, Jane Austen, John Keats, Washington Irving|
|Victorian||1837-1901||George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Henry James, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman|
|Modernist||1901-c1939||Joseph Conrad, W.B. Yeats, J.M Synge, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, Ralph Ellison|
|Postmodern & Post-colonial||c1940-||Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, George Orwell, Muriel Spark, Colm Tóibín, Tom Stoppard, Paul Muldoon, Katherine Mansfield, R.K. Narayan, Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, Derek Walcott, Anne Carson|
*These examples (and year ranges) are meant to be illustrative, not authoritative or absolute. There are many debates about the upper and lower limits of literary eras, and who belongs where.
Whether a source is primary or secondary depends less on its format than on its distance from the object of study.
A primary source is a first-hand account of the object of study; it is reported by a person who directly experienced, witnessed, or created it. Here are some things often used as primary sources: diaries, memoirs & autobiographies, letters, original manuscripts, interviews, photos, & videos, and articles by scientists publishing their own research. A novel, short story, essay or poem is also a primary source, when the object of study is the literary work itself. Think of a primary source as data.
A secondary source can be an interpretation of--or commentary or criticism on--the object of study. The author, such as a journalist or scholar, relies on other people's first-hand accounts. For instance, a literary interpretation of the novel Moby Dick is a secondary source about Moby Dick, as is a history text that draws on Melville's diaries. Think of a secondary source as analysis of or reporting on data.
Because primary or secondary are relative to the object of study and not absolute categories, a source that might be secondary in one context could be primary in another. For example, a newspaper editorial about Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech that you use as context for analyzing the speech itself would be a secondary source, but the same article used as evidence in a paper about how King was represented in the press would be primary.
Note: Primary & secondary are not a measure of how credible a source is. Both primary and secondary sources can vary in their credibility or authority: just as a primary source can be limited in perspective or heavily biased, a secondary source could represent primary sources incompletely or out of context. On the other hand, a primary source could establish the truth of an event, or a secondary source could assemble a wide body of primary sources with differing perspectives to create a comprehensive account.