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Facts and Definitions

When you need a quick, 1-2 page overview.

Encyclopedias - General

  • Oxford Online Reference Premium
    • Search lots of different subject-specific encyclopedias and handbooks. Pro tips: you can sort the results by length to get really quick or really thorough answers. Also, pay attention to the book title as well as the entry title---the entry for "Cancer" in A Dictionary of Astronomy will be very different from the entry in the Concise Medical Dictionary! 
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica
    • a professionally vetted alternative to Wikipedia.

Encyclopedias - Literary

  • LION (Literature Online) Reference Works:
    • Specialized for literature: search across multiple encyclopedias for in-depth discussions of genres (short story, novel, drama, poetry), periods, geographies (post-colonial literatures, African, American British) and theory. 
    • Pro tip: use the general search box and refine your results by content type "Reference" or "Authors."
  • The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literature and Criticism
    • Excellent summaries of movements, ideas, and figures in literary criticism and theory.
    • Pro tip: don't rely on search alone! Browse the contents and topic list to get a better sense of which articles will be most helpful.  


  • The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
    • Widely accepted as the most complete record of the English language ever assembled. Unlike typical language dictionaries, which only define words in terms of their current uses and meanings, the OED is a historical dictionary. Each entry lists a word's changing meanings (including those now obsolete), and illustrates those changes with quotations from literary texts and other historical records.
  • Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)
    • Focuses on regionally-specific words, usages, and pronunciations. It's a great source for Americanisms not covered in the OED.

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Histories, Summaries, and Bibliographies

Longer scholarly overviews of a topic

  • Oxford Very Short Introductions
    • Deliberately concise overviews designed to quickly bring you up to speed on a new area of knowledge. Each Introduction is written by a leading scholar in the field. Topics range widely, from Alexander the Great to Accounting to African Religions to American Legal History.
  • Cambridge Companions and Cambridge Histories
    • Highly-regarded essay collections from Cambridge University Press. In the Companions, you'll find volumes on specific authors (Thomas Hardy), genres (the Italian novel), themes or movements (American Transcendentalism), and time periods (medieval women's writing). In the Histories, see in particular the categories on Literary Studies (including the monumental 7-volume Cambridge History of American Literature) and Theatre Studies and Peforming Arts.
    • Pro tip: beware the "all content" search box. Make sure you're searching specifically within Cambridge Companions to start.
  • Oxford Bibliographies Online
    • Annotated bibliographies to the major scholarship on specific authors, literary themes, genres and movements. If there isn't a bibliography on your exact topic, search around for related topics and ideas. Best for English and American literature.

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Critical Biographies

"Critical" biographies include discussion of the critical responses to a person's life and works, along with notes for further reading and information on where personal papers or archives are held.

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Full-length biographical studies provide helpful context about the circumstances surrounding a literary work's production and its immediate reception.