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English 220: Introduction to Writing about Literature (all sections)

Where can I get help understanding a text?

Before you start your research and writing, you may need to gather more background information about the text or author you are studying in order to understand the text and its context. This kind of information is often found in what are called reference sources, like encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks. Below are instructions on how to to find these kind of reference sources using the Gale Literature database and the Hunter College Libraries' OneSearch tool.

Be aware: while scholarly reference sources are considered a reliable source of information, they are not the kind of sources you are being asked to engage with in your paper. Instead, they can be used at the beginning of the research process to help you understand basic information about the text or author. They can also point you in the direction of academic books, book chapters, and journal articles that contain literary criticism: these are often listed in a section labeled "bibliography," "references," or "further reading."

Finding background information using Gale Literature

Gale Literature is a database devoted entirely to literature, and it includes both literary criticism and reference sources.

To find background information in this database:

  • Click on the logo above to open the database in a new tab, or find it on under the "Databases" tab on the Hunter College Libraries homepage
  • Type the name of the author and/or the title of the text into the search bar
  • When you see the search results, click on “Topic & Work Overviews” or “Biographies

Finding background information using OneSearch

OneSearch is a tool that allows you to search the Hunter College Libraries' print and electronic collections at once.

To find background information using OneSearch:

  • Click on the logo above to open OneSearch in a new tab or, start from the Hunter College Libraries' homepage
  • Type the name of the author and the title of the text into the OneSearch bar
  • When you see the search results, find the “Resource Type” filter on the right side of the page
  • Click on the box next to “Reference Entries” under that menu
  • Click on the green “Apply Filters” button 

Click here for a video about finding reference sources in OneSearch, or consult the screenshots below.


With the filter applied, you'll see search results like this:

Can I use this for my paper?

The sources you find using the steps above are generally not acceptable to incorporate into papers for literature courses. They provide basic facts and generally accepted ideas about the texts; they are not literary criticism. When you are asked to find a piece of literary criticism for your paper, you should be looking for an essay that makes an argument.

Signs a source is not a piece of literary criticism:

  • It is labeled, tagged, or titled with words like: work overview, plot summary, synopsis, biography, “Introduction to…” "Explanation of..."
  • It comes from a book or series with words like the following in the title:  Encyclopedia, Dictionary, Handbook, “…for Students” (for example, Short Stories for Students, Shakespeare for Students), "Guide to..."