skip to content

Just as there are different genres and forms of literary text, there are different types of scholarly text. Awareness of these is helpful because it can help you to

  • identify what each item on a reading list is, and find it quicker.
  • evaluate which texts might contain the most appropriate type of information for your various research needs, helping you to select and prioritise your reading.

Below are some of the most common types of academic text:

Primary texts are the literary work (novel, poem, play etc.) which is the object of your studies. The book may also contain some secondary criticism in the form of an introduction or notes. This may make useful preliminary reading, but you will need to critically evaluate it just as with other secondary texts, especially if the information is out of date or aimed too much at a general rather than academic reader.

Example: The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Boston, 1987).

Textbooks are written for students rather than academics, and as such they tend to contain a representative summary or synthesis of an established field of research rather than new research. Textbooks are rarer in Arts and Humanities than in other more information-heavy subjects, but examples might include introductions to critical theory or to an author, genre or work. Check that the textbook is of an appropriate level, for university study rather than A-level.

Example: Brewer, Derek, A New Introduction to Chaucer (Harlow, 1998).

Subject-specific reference works are specialised dictionaries and encyclopaedias for a particular discipline (in your case, English literature). They will be more detailed and relevant to you than general reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary or Encyclopaedia Britannica. They are particularly useful for historical or literary context, or definitions of terminology.

Example: Cuddon, J. A., The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th edn. (London, 1999).

Monographs are books on a single topic, by a single author. They may be part of a more general series, but represent the findings of a longer term research project. They may offer very specialised and in-depth treatment of a narrow area, developing a single argument over a series of closely related chapters. These are aimed at academics as well as students. You may find that you need to be very selective in your reading so as not to be overwhelmed by information that does not relate to your purposes.

Example: Mann, Jill, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge, 1973)

Books of Essays are collections of articles by different academic authors, brought together and introduced by an editor (who may also contribute one of the essays). The chapters are focussed around a central theme. These books may be:

  • conference proceedings - published versions of papers that were delivered at a conference on a theme (these may also appear as special editions of a journal).
  • a collection of essays by a single eminent scholar, representing their career, or Festschrift, a collection of essays presented to an eminent academic on their retirement by their colleagues in the field.
  • a handbook or reader - pre-existing or specially commissioned essays on a topic which are intended to be an advanced introduction to a topic. They are usually more original research than would be found in a textbook.

Example: Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer, ed. Ruth Moore and Barry Windeatt (Cambridge, 2006)

The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2004).

An essay within these collections might appear as:

  Wallace, David, 'Chaucer's Italian Inheritance', in: The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 36-57.

Journals (or periodicals) are essentially an academic magazine, publishing disparate articles and book reviews on the general field it covers. An issue of a journal might come out several times a year, and if the library buys a subscription to that journal, you can access it in print or in electronic format. The library will bind together all the issues for a single year into a single volume for shelving. You are unlikely to need a whole issue or year's worth of issues, just a single article, which you can find through reading lists or databases such as JSTOR. You will need to know the name and year of the journal to find the article though. Journal articles are usually on a quite narrow aspect of a topic.

Example: Patterson, Lee, 'Chaucer's Pardoner on the Couch: Psyche and Clio in Medieval Literary Studies',Speculum 76:3 (2001), 638–80.

76:3 means volume 76 of the journal (which contains all the issues for 2001), issue 3 of that year.