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English Literature

This guide provides a general introduction to Library and information resources for the study of literature in English.

What are primary sources and secondary sources?

Primary sources

Primary sources refer to sources which are as close as possible to the origin of the information or idea under study. They have originated in the time period concerned that haven't been filtered through interpretation.

In literary studies, primary sources are often creative works such as poems, stories, novels, correspondence, and so on (c.f. films and paintings in art; memoirs and eyewitness accounts in historical studies; or government documents in political studies).

Secondary sources

Secondary sources provide analysis, commentary, or criticism on the primary sources. Secondary sources have often been created with the benefit of hindsight.

The chief value of the secondary source lies not just in their analysis, commentary or criticism but in the fact that it points you to the primary source through a citation. It is important to read (and then cite) the primary source if you can, because that will enable you to verify the accuracy and completeness of the information. Reading the primary source could even enable you to question the related secondary source.

Sometimes, some primary sources are unobtainable (e.g. if they are out of print or impossible to find) or written in a language you don't understand. In these circumstances, secondary sources are the only information you rely on, and you should make this clear in your work.

Sometimes, secondary sources could become primary sources, e.g. if you are discussing the history of literary criticism of an author, then scholarly articles throughout a particular period can become the primary sources of your study

See also the Subject Guide:

Using DiscoverEd to find primary sources

You can use DiscoverEd to find some primary source material at the University Library. 
Click on the tabs for tips on how to do this.

The material you will find in DiscoverEd will primarily be primary sources published in books, University of Edinburgh theses and some of the rare books held in our Centre for Research Collections. You will also be able to find some digital primary source material but you are best to access the primary source databases to properly search for these.

Use the Advanced Search option to search for relevant keywords or subject headings plus terms like:

  • Diaries
  • Correspondence
  • Letters
  • Personal narrative
  • Memoir
  • Sources
  • Oral history


To find the writings of an individual, do an Author/Creator search in Advanced Search. You can also use this to find publications or records of organisations e.g. House of Commons.

To find works published or produced during a particular period, or at a particular time and place, use the Refine My Results options in the left-hand menu next to search results.

You can use the options in here to limit your search by date, language, resource type, library, etc. 

E.g. You are looking for books written in the 18th century about slavery. Type slavery into the DiscoverEd search box and click the search button. When the search results come up scroll down the left-hand menu to 'Publication Date' and limit this to 1700-1800. Then under 'Resource Type' limit to Books


To search for primary source material available to you digitally then use the primary source databases.

To search archives, manuscripts, personal papers, University of Edinburgh Archives, Lothian Health Services Archives (LHSA), art collections, etc., you will need to search different catalogues.

To search for archives, manuscripts, personal papers, etc., held at other libraries, archives, museums, etc., you can use some of these search tools.

Primary texts freely available from provides the texts of best literary works from a wide range of classic authors.

Major anthologies
Fiction - anthologies and by author

Verse - anthologies and by author

Non-fiction - anthologies and by author

ProQuest One Literature

ProQuest One Literature contains more than 500,000 primary works, including rare and obscure texts, multiple versions, and non-traditional sources like comics, theatre performances, and author readings. The database can be browed by literary period, literary movement, author name or literature collections.

ProQuest One Literature (PQOL) is the upgraded version of Literature Online (LION, also in the Database list) but the content is double the size of LION.

Norton Critical Editions Collection

Norton Critical Editions collection

This is a curated collection of 49 essential classic texts in the e-book format of the traditional and authoritative Norton Critical Editions series. The titles are drawn from American Literature, 18th and 19th Century Literature, World Literature, Early Modern Drama, Short Stories and Poetry, and Religion and Epics. The texts are also accompanied with essays and other secondary readings, bibliographies and historical and contemporary analysis. All the individual titles are indexed and searchable by title or author in DiscoverEd.


Gale Literature: LitFinder

Gale Literature: LitFinder provides access to literary works and authors throughout history and includes more than 130,000 full-text poems and 650,000+ poetry citations, as well as short stories, speeches, and plays. The database also includes secondary materials like biographies, images, and more.

Title lists :

Oxford Scholarly Editions

OSE provides full-text access to several hundred authoritative Oxford editions of major English works from the humanities written between 1485 and 1830. The subject coverage ranges from philosophy, literature, and theology, to economics, linguistics, and medicine, with a particularly rich collection in poetry, prose and drama including all of Shakespeare’s plays, the complete works of Jane Austen, the poetry of John Donne, and works by Adam Smith, David Hume and Jeremy Bentham. All the individual titles are indexed in DiscoverEd.

Newly purchased content in 2020 includes Medieval Poetry (24 titles) and Medieval Prose (77 titles), and in July 2021 we added 19th Century Poetry (26 titles) and Romantics Poetry (29 titles).

European Literature, 1790-1840 : The Corvey Collection

As part of the Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO), this unique collection of monographs includes 7,717 works in English, 6,504 in French and 3,640 in German published in Britain and on the Continent during the Romantic period and the early Victoria era. Sourced from Castle Corvey in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, the Corvey Collection is one of the most important collections of works from the period in existence, with particular strength in especially difficult-to-find or even previously unknown works – by women writers in particular. The collection’s vast archive of materials documents the nature and scope of literary publication in England and on the Continent during the Romantic period and the early years of the Victorian era. Scholars can research and explore a range of topics, including Romantic literary genres; mutual influences of British, French and German Romanticism; literary culture; women writers of the period; the canon and Romantic aesthetics. Covering 1790-1840.

Other primary source databases

Black Drama, now in its third edition, contains the full text of more than 1,700 plays written from the mid-1800s to the present by more than 200 playwrights from North America, English-speaking Africa, the Caribbean, and other African diaspora countries. Many of the works are rare, hard to find, or out of print. James Vernon Hatch, the playwright, historian, and curator of the landmark Hatch-Billops Collection, is the project’s editorial advisor. More than 40 percent of the collection consists of previously unpublished plays by writers such as Langston Hughes, Ed Bullins, Willis Richardson, Amiri Baraka, Randolph Edmonds, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others.

This is the online edition of the same seven-volume print title, but not just. The fully searchable online edition includes all the original introductions, collations, and commentary, but it also complements, develops, and vastly extends the print edition with a large and flexible array of textual and contextual materials. In addition, the Online Edition includes a comprehensive body of essays and archives necessary for full study of Jonson’s life, performance history, and afterlife. In total, the edition contains around 90 old-spelling texts, 550 contextual documents, 80 essays, several hundred high-quality images, and 100 music scores; it lists details of more than 1300 stage performances, and has a cross-linked bibliography of over 7000 items.

Carcanet publishes the most comprehensive and diverse list of modern and classic poetry in English and in translation, as well as a range of inventive fiction, Lives and Letters and literary criticism. The digital Carcanet Collection offers access to more than 100 titles, including career-defining new work from the poets laureate of Jamaica (Mervyn Morris) and Wales (Gillian Clarke), a debut from rising star Joey Connolly, plus much-anticipated follow-up collections from Sinead Morrissey, Tara Bergin, Caroline Bird and Karen McCarthy Woolf. Each title, and the collection as a whole, is fully-searchable by keyword. Mobile users can also download the 'Exactly' app on an iOS or Android device from the relevant app store, and instantly access the book collection.  Access will be granted to new e-books published throughout the year.

The Carlyle Letters Online includes over 12,000 letter written by Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle from 1812 to 1859, including correspondence with more than 600 recipients, such as Rober Browning, George Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Stuart Mill and Charles Dickens. Covering 1812-1859.

For further information about the Carlyle Letters project, please see the School of English Literature website here.

Drama Online is a digital library of the world’s most studied and critically-acclaimed plays, accompanied by a wealth of innovative teaching and performance tools, critical analysis, contextual information, references and practical texts. We have subscribed to following components:

  • Nick Hern Books Collection : Over 500 modern plays from specialist theatre publisher Nick Hern Books featuring pre-eminent playwrights including Howard Brenton, Jez Butterworth, and Caryl Churchill.
  • The RSC Live Collection: 17 films of live productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2013 to the cutting-edge 2016-17 production of The Tempest starring Simon Russell-Beale
  • Shakespeare's Globe On Screen (2008-2015): 21 films recorded live on the Globe stage from leading actors including Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry, and Roger Allam’s Olivier Award-winning Falstaff in Henry IV
  • Shakespeare’s Globe on Screen 2 (2016-2018): Features landmark productions from the Globe Theatre’s most recent seasons, including the first production from the indoor Jacobean theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2014
  • Shakespeare in the Present: A six hour acting masterclass with international coach Patsy Rodenburg, starring Joseph Fiennes
  • Stage on Screen: Critically acclaimed stage productions of four key set drama and literature texts: The Duchess of Malfi, Doctor Faustus, The School for Scandal, and Volpone.
  • Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains: Steven Berkoff: A 90 minute masterclass from Steven Berkoff, world-renowned writer, director, and actor.
  • Maxine Peake as Hamlet: A landmark reinvention of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Maxine Peake in the title role.

Collection of 60,000 images of original manuscripts and printed material with accompanying thematic essays. The content comes from library and archive collections worldwide, and can used to support teaching and learning. Full details of how to incorporate images into course materials are provided. Covering 1492-1962.

Explore this unique archive relating to the history of printing, publishing and bookselling dating from 1554 to the 20th century. The Stationers’ Company was a key agent in the process by which the book trade was regulated and monitored and thus it is widely regarded as one of the most important sources for studying the history of the book, publishing history, the history of copyright and the workings of an early London Livery Company. 

Literary Print Culture

The National Theatre Collection brings the stage to life through access to high definition streamed video of world-class theatre productions and unique archival material, offering insight into British theatre-making and performance studies. The collection contains 30 video performances. As a supplement to the filmed productions, exclusive digitised archival materials such as prompt scripts, costume designs, and more are available to provide behind-the-scenes background and contextual information. The featured 30 performances are:

  • Comedies: She Stoops to Conquer (2012), One Man, Two Guvnors (2011), and London Assurance (2010)
  • 20th century classics: Yerma (2017), The Cherry Orchard (2011), The Deep Blue Sea (2016), Les Blancs (2016), A Streetcar Named Desire (2014), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2018), Consent (2017) and Translations (2018)
  • Shakespeare plays: Hamlet (2010), Othello (2013), King Lear (2011), Macbeth (2018), Julius Caesar (2018), Coriolanus (2014), Twelfth Night (2017), The Winter's Tale (2018) and Romeo and Juliet (2017)
  • Literary adaptations: Frankenstein (2 performances, 2011), Jane Eyre (2015), Treasure Island (2015), Peter Pan (2017), (2015) and Small Island (2019)
  • Greek classics: Antigone (2012) and Medea (2014)
  • World historical drama: Dara (2015)

Nineteenth Century Literary Society offers unprecedented digital access to the peerless archive of the historic John Murray publishing company, and is an unparalleled resource for nineteenth century culture and the literary luminaries who shaped it.

Held by the National Library of Scotland since 2006 and added to the UNESCO Register of World Memory in 2011, the Murray collection comprises one of the world’s most important literary archives.

This digital resource enables researchers to discover the golden age of the company that published genre-defining titles including Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Austen’s Emma, and Livingstone’s Missionary Travels

Key figures who feature in the Archive include, Jane Austen, Isabella Bird, Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Disraeli,  Elizabeth Eastlake, William Gladstone, David Livingstone, and Sir Walter Scott.

Digital facsimiles of over 230 manuscripts written or compiled by women in the British Isles during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, sourced from 15 libraries and archives in the UK and North America. These early modern women authors were otherwise little known because their writing exists only in manuscript form. Manscript content includes works of poetry, drama, religious writing, autobiographical material, cookery and medical recipes, and accounts. Contains biographical and bibliographical resources, as well as contextual essays by academics working in the field. Covering 16th - 17th centuries.

This collection of documents offers insights into the performance practice in the particular space of the reconstructed Globe Theatre. It details the way in which the theatre was constructed as a place of radical experiment. It documents over 200 performances through prompt books, wardrobe notes, programmes, publicity material, annual reports, show reports, photographs and architectural plans.

Shakespeare's Globe Archive : theatres, players & performance

Theatre in Video contains more than 250 definitive performances of the world's leading plays, together with more than 100 film documentaries, online in streaming video - more than 500 hours in all, representing hundreds of leading playwrights, actors and directors. This video resource is searchable by title, actor, playwright, and subject. It is also browsable by actor, director, playwright, genre, and dates. It is possible to bookmark specific scenes, monologues, and staging examples and then include those online links in learning and teaching material and in Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

Theatre in Video

Twentieth Century North American Drama contains 2,050+ plays from the United States and Canada. In addition to providing a comprehensive full-text resource for students in the performing arts, the collection offers a unique window into the economic, historical, social, and political psyche of two countries. Scholars and students who use the database will have a new way to study the signal events of the twentieth century—including the Depression, the role of women, the Cold War, and more—through the plays and performances of writers who lived through these decades.

Twentieth Century North American Drama, 2nd Edition

Comics have become an increasingly popular area of academic study, and yet the typical library has only a small selection of graphic novels in the catalog. Underground and Independent Comics solves this problem, collecting thousands of comics—many extremely rare and hard to find—in one, easy-to-use online collection.

Volume I covers major works from North America and Europe, beginning with the first underground comix from the 1950s and continuing through to modern sequential artists.  It incorporates 75,000 pages of material from artists such as Basil Wolverton and Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Harvey Pekar, Spain Rodriguez, and Vaughn Bode, and modern masters including Peter Bagge, Kim Deitch, Dave Sim, Dan Clowes, and Los Bros.  The collection contextualizes these original works with 25,000 pages of interviews, commentary, theory, and criticism from journals, books, and magazines, including The Comics Journal. Also included in this collection is The Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Frederick Wertham—the book that led to one of the largest censorship programs in US history—and the complete transcripts of the senate subcommittee hearings that birthed the Comics Code Authority and, inadvertently, the underground comix movement.

Volume II expands on the debut database by offering an additional 100,000 pages of important, rare, and hard-to-find works, scholarly writings, and more. It adds extensive coverage of the pre-Comics Code era of horror, crime, romance, and war comics that fueled the backlash leading to the advent of the Comics Code. Selections include works by visionaries such as Alex Toth, Boody Rogers, Fletcher Hanks, Steve Ditko, Joe Kubert, Bill Everett, Joe Simon, and Jack Kirby, along with essential series such as Crime Does Not Pay and Mister Mystery, and many others both famous and infamous. Volume II also contains tens of thousands of pages of non-mainstream, post-code comics and secondary materials from around the world, including the US, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, England, Sweden, Norway, Australia, Korea, Japan, and more. Notable titles include Essex County by Jeff Lemire, From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, 120 Days of Simon by Simon Gardenfors, Gen Manhwa by various artists, Werewolves of Montpellier by Jason, and God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga. Ancillary materials within Volume II render the collection ideal for students and researchers seeking a holistic perspective on the historical role of underground comics. Dozens of associated scholarly writings and commentaries add perspective and enrich understanding of the works and their cultural significance.

Victorian Popular Culture contains a wide range of source material relating to popular entertainment in America, Britain and Europe in the period from 1779 to 1930. The resource is divided into four self-contained sections, covering: Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic; Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks; Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment; and Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema. Covering 1779-1930.

Victorian Popular Culture