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Finding Literature in the Library of Congress—Main Reading Room

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The following is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature Reference Specialist at the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room, Humanities and Social Sciences Division. It is the first in a series that will feature the types of literary resources to be found throughout the Library.

Main Reading Room, Library of Congress
Main Reading Room, Library of Congress

Many literary researchers visiting the Library of Congress start their explorations in the gorgeous and inspiring Main Reading Room. While the Main Reading Room has more than 60,000 volumes on reference, it is also the gateway to the general collections and is often the jumping-off point to other reading rooms throughout the Library. Patrons are welcome to browse the Main Reading Room’s shelves for such varied literature reference sources as the Dictionary of Literary Biography; indexes to plays, short stories, and poetry; encyclopedias of science fiction, horror, mysteries and other genres; bibliographies on Victorian periodicals; or guides to microfilm collections of dime novels.

Reference librarians can assist researchers in the use of the Library’s Online Catalog to find relevant books and periodicals as well as direct them to the more than 800 databases found through the Library’s E-Resources Online Catalog. The Library’s Language and Literature subject grouping of databases is also a great starting point for literary research. Standard literary criticism indexes, such as the Modern Language Association International Bibliography (MLAIB) and the Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature (ABELL) are found here, as are excellent primary resources for 19th century research, including American Periodicals, 19th Century UK Periodicals, America’s Historical Newspapers, Early American Imprints, 19th Century Masterfile, and many others.

On a scholar’s recent visit to the Main Reading Room to research a new book on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I conducted a search in the Online Catalog—it revealed more than 55 works simply on the subject of Fitzgerald, an additional 71 under the subheading “criticism and interpretation,” and another 60+ specifically on The Great Gatsby. Within the Library’s vast collections, this scholar will be able to find reviews of the books and films from contemporary newspapers and popular magazines and even view multiple filmed versions of Fitzgerald’s works; she will also be able to research when and how Fitzgerald was taught by studying a sampling of college catalogs and textbooks. We may not have examples of specific exam questions on Fitzgerald—eventually we find some limits to what we collect!—but the literary resources in the Main Reading Room are unparalleled for breadth and depth.

Blashfield Mural, "Evolution of Civilization," Main Reading Room
Figure of “Literature” from the Edwin Blashfield Mural “Evolution of Civilization” in the collar of the dome of the Main Reading Room

Literary researchers and creative writers need only gaze up at the Main Reading Room’s glorious dome to be inspired by the goddess-like figure of “Literature” (England) from Edwin Blashfield’s mural of “The Evolution of Civilization.”