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Comparative Literature: A Library Research Guide for Majors: Research Planning and Strategy

Compiled by Mary George, Spring 2015

Planning Advice for JPs and Senior Theses

1.     Select a general topic that interests you, then confer with your advisor for approval and suggestions.

2.     Brainstorm with friends, begin a research log, and teach yourself how to use a bibliographic manager.

3.     Transform your general the topic into one or more research questions to investigate. 

4.     Imagine the variety of evidence that would help answer your research questions: Who would have created that evidence? When? Where? In what languages? Are such formats as art, photographs, maps, video recordings, letters, diaries, memoirs, autobiography likely to be relevant?

5.     Ask yourself what you already know about your general topic and what sorts of background and factual/geographic information would be useful. 

6.     See the Basic Library Research Strategy in the adjacent box and explore the resources under all the tabs in this guide. 

7.     As you identify and grapple with sources of all types, you will develop a hypothesis, and somewhat later a central insight, for your argument, which in turn will likely require additional resources. The crucial thing is not to state your opinion and then look for supporting sources. As Sherlock Holmes put it, “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” [Arthur Conan Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia," in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (London. G. Newnes, 1892), 5.]

8.    Remember that identifying the existence of a source and actually acquiring can be a multi-step process. If Princeton does not have what you want, our Borrow Direct (for books only) and Interlibrary Loan (for all types of material) services can usually get it for you within days.

9.     You can make an appointment with a subject specialist at any point, if you want to discuss finding additional evidence. If you have trouble obtaining a specific source, contact the library for advice. 

10.     ALWAYS keep your advisor in the loop!

Basic Library Research Strategy

1.     Read background information on your research question(s) in one or more subject-specific  encyclopedias. To identify relevant ones, do a guided search in the Main Catalog. For example,  

French poetry  [as a phrase/Subject]

encyclopedia dictionary handbook  [any of these/Keyword Anywhere]

Literature Resource Center is an especially good starting point for background on any author, work, or topic.

Yet another approach is to identify specific reference works touching on your area of interest by browsing the relevant categories in the Guide to Reference.Then you can search for items you discover in the Main Catalog.

2.     Start a list of relevant vocabulary for your research, beginning with the keywords or key phrases you would use to describe your investigation. Add synonyms and descriptors you discover as you explore and read. Be sure to include the subject headings you see in the Main Catalog when you click the long view button above any item’s display. 

3.     Attempt to find a review article that will survey the current state of research on your topic. Use, for example, The Year's Work in English Studies (which covers all literatures in English), American Literary Scholarship, or The Year's Work in Modern Language Studies. Note that if you are working with ancient or medieval literatures, or with the literatures of Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East, there are additional tools that will help you with this step.

4.     Search Princeton's Main Catalog for (a) specific books listed at the end of the encyclopedia articles or other background material you have read, and (b) books that have the subject headings you noted in step 2. Also use the guided search option, entering the keywords or phrases you have listed in step 2.  

5.     Begin systematic browsing of the shelves under all the call numbers you have established in step 4. Examine the tables of contents, indexes, and bibliographies of books that are located adjacent to ones you know are relevant. Do not overlook books in languages you do not read; they may give you important leads to sources you would want to know about. Keep careful track of the complete citation for any source that appears useful so you will have all the details ready for your own bibliography. (Better yet, import the Main Catalog information into RefWorks!) Also perform Call number browse searches in the Main Catalog to do a virtual browse of Princeton's collection. This will identify items that are not currently on the shelf for a variety of reasons, for instance, if they are charged out or in remote storage.

6.     For discovering relevant articles, in both scholarly journals and popular periodicals, I suggest searching ProQuest Central or Ebsco Academic Search because they are interdisciplinary and very current. Then explore the databases listed as core for your areas of interest, using the subject list. The most well known of these is the MLA International Bibliography, but there are many others, depending on the author, genre, time period, and other aspects of your research. Use the  button to locate digitized versions of articles that do not have full-text links.  

7.     Return to the Main Catalog to find call numbers for additional books you have identified via footnotes and bibliography entries and to determine if Princeton subscribes to the periodicals or newspapers for which you now have article citations. Track these down and continue to identify still more relevant sources provided by those books and articles. 

9.     Toward the end of the research phase of your project, consider doing a cited reference search in the Web of Science database to identify recent scholarly articles that have made use of key sources you already know about. This is an extremely powerful and complex electronic resource, so please ask a reference librarian to demonstrate it for you.


This guide was compiled by Mary George, former Senior Reference Librarian for Humanities & Social Sciences, in Spring 2015.

John Logan

John Logan

Literature Bibliographer

B-13-P Firestone

(609) 258-3296

Literature Web site  

Discipline Librarians