Skip to Main Content

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

American Literature: Intro to Research Skills

A guide to American Literature tools and resources.

Terms to Know

These are some basic terms that will help to distinguish between the various types of resources made available by the Library.

Full-Text: these resources contain the complete texts of documents (such as journal articles).


Bibliography: these resource contain citations for documents (as opposed to documents in full text). You will often be able to click the Discover Full-Text button in resources like this at UIUC, but you may have to find a print copy in the catalog or use Interlibrary Loan.


Primary Source and Secondary Source: a primary source is a subject of direct study, and a secondary source is scholarly work on a primary source.

Examples: the novel Jane Eyre is a primary source, but journal articles and books discussing Jane Eyre are secondary sources.


Reference Source: reference sources are more introductory in nature than secondary scholarship, but may cite useful secondary sources.


Identifying Keywords

The first step to an effective database search is identifying keywords relevant to your topic. How do you find keywords?  First, take a look at your chosen topic or thesis statement.   Pick out the keywords and their synonyms that are central to your topic. 

For example, the topic "The confluence of women and religion in the novels of James Baldwin" has the keywords of:

- women/gender/femininity

- James Baldwin

- religion/Christianity/African-American church

With these keywords, you can begin searching databases such as MLA Bibliography, Literature Resource Center, and ABELL for research articles (or secondary sources) to support your topic.

BOOLEAN Searching

When you search a database, you may see multiple text boxes, like in this search screen from MLA Bibliography:

This type of search is called BOOLEAN searching: it simply involves combining two or more terms together with the conjunctions AND, OR, NOT.  Using BOOLEAN searching is a simple but powerful way to find specific materials related to your topic.  Each conjunction can expand or narrow your search. Here's an example with a group of shapes:

What happens when we use Boolean searching with these shapes?

AND: When you search with "AND," the results must match all of the search terms. So if we search for "square" AND "yellow", the result is one matching item:

OR: When you search with "OR," the results must only match at least 1 of the search terms.  So if we search for "square" OR "yellow," the result is multiple matches:

NOT: When you search with "NOT," the results must match the first term(s) but not the second.  So if we search for "square" NOT "yellow", the result is two matching items:

As these examples show, Boolean searching can give you focused and varied results that help you sift through lots of material.