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The Problem of Literary Research

Two years into being a lit librarian (as well as 6 years of studying literature and writing literary criticism of various sorts and levels), I finally realized what makes literary research so hard. All these poor students are looking for research about their literary works, and they want examples of criticism that approach those works from particular theoretical frameworks. But the MLA International Bibliography and other databases for literary research don’t index by theoretical perspective. I can’t ask it for New Historicist readings of Daisy Miller, for example. And because of this I can’t easily figure out quite what New Historicism is, or who the key scholars were/are, or flesh out a “history of criticism on this piece” kind of literature review.

And I can understand why this is the case. I mean, can you imagine the overhead involved in making decisions about what theory/theories are represented in an article, applying this to a databases as massive as the MLA International Bibliography, or updating the constantly changing terminology associated with literary theory? And yet, this is one of the three primary query-types I’m asked to help with (the other two being “things interpreting this work” and “things characterizing this author.”)

It strikes me that this could be one of those perfect uses for social tagging in research databases. But until then, these poor students are in for a long and frustrating stint of following up on citations, using Web of Knowledge to develop a better feel for the network of scholars writing from a particular theoretical framework, and generally having to move beyond the now-normal task of picking articles with interesting titles from result lists.

In other words, I think that in many ways, the skills required for good literary research are still some of the least translatable into the electronic world. And these skills will probably continue to be much more based on building up vast internal schemata of authors and publishers then on boolean searching until a) databases add indexing about theoretical frameworks or b) MLA (and others) goes social and let us help them describe these works of criticism in ways that are useful to literary critics.