Question: What value has a reference book? Why consult, for example, a literary encyclopedia?
Answer: Encyclopedias are two steps removed from the primary works of literature, that is from creative works of drama, poetry, and prose. Encyclopedias are instead based on secondary sources and for that reason belong to a class of information called tertiary sources by librarians.
- Encyclopedias help researchers to contextualize their topics, situating primary literary works within broader scholarly debates. Context is critical, not least because researchers cannot elicit relevant search results from library databases such as JSTOR if they do not know which keywords (or search terms) to employ.
- Obtain biographical information about an author, define literary terms, and track down additional sources for further reading. Articles in literary encyclopedias typically contain bibliographies that lead researchers to important secondary sources about their topics.
- Browsing a literary encyclopedia can also help researchers to choose and/or refine their research topics. In short, the Gitenstein Library reference works listed and described on the Reference Shelf pages of this guide are a great way to begin any literary research project.