Meta on Meta, Part 3: The Quest for Sources

The Lady of Shalott embarks upon a futile quest for Camelot, where she might find the article she needs for her paper

Once you’ve decided upon a topic, it is time to begin the research process. I think this is often the most intimidating part of the process, and it’s again partly the fault of academia, which has allowed much of its material to be locked inside a room at the top of an ivory tower. Without affiliation to an academic institution, most journals and scholarly books are out of reach of the general public, which is highly unethical in my not-so-humble opinion. In an effective democracy, cutting-edge knowledge cannot be accessible only to an elite few who have jumped through the right set of costly hoops. It can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to subscribe to some scholarly journals, and even downloading a single article via official channels can cost you $20 or more. If you belong to a university that subscribes to the top databases in your field, this is not an obstacle, but in the field of Tolkien studies, many scholars are also fans, and we lack those affiliations and the access those affiliations bring.

My purpose today is twofold: First, you need to figure out what kind of sources you are going to need for your research. Second, you need to find those sources.

Types of Sources and Deciding What You Need

There are many types sources that you can use in your nonfiction. Here are the major ones that I tend to use in my research:

  • Tolkien-based texts. Or, stuff written by Tolkien. Even if you look only at these, you’ll have over a dozen to choose from.
  • Tolkien scholarship. Stuff written about Tolkien by people other than Tolkien. There are multiple Tolkien studies journals being published (see below for a list) and several new books come out each year.
  • Other literary texts. Other literary and mythological texts that have a bearing on your research, e.g., mythological sources and literature that influenced Tolkien, other literature you’re comparing Tolkien to, etc.
  • Other scholarship. Needed to establish facts outside of Tolkien studies, e.g., an astronomy textbook if you’re writing about the constellations of Middle-earth.
  • Fan-written scholarship. Notice I say “scholarship” here! Yes, that’s what a lot of us do, and essays and resources created by fans can be excellent sources and are often much more accessible than academic sources. (They can be awful sources too, but so can a lot of what falls into the Tolkien scholarship category above. I’ll talk about source evaluation more next week.)
  • Other sources. Films, fan fiction,

You will not need all or most of these sources for your project. In fact, when you’re at this point in the project, my number-one piece of advice would be …

Don’t be afraid to limit your sources. There is nothing wrong with deciding to look at only one category or even a part of a category. For example, if you’re writing about music in Middle-earth, you might decide you want to look only at the texts Tolkien wrote. However, that’s still piles of research. It’s perfectly fair to decide that you want to look only at how music is used in The Lord of the Rings, for example. This is one way to tame your topic if you feel it running away from you or one way to make a new topic feel more manageable.

Where to Actually Find Stuff

Now that I’ve written extensively about how hard it is to find stuff, I’m going to give some tips, tricks, and resources that I’ve discovered over the years to actually … well, find stuff for my research.

It’s unlikely that this is going to be useful to read straight through. It’s intended as a reference–a place to start when you have a particular type of source in mind for your project–so don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information here. Most nonfiction projects will use only a small fraction of it. It also focuses more on scholarly rather than fan sources for the simple reason that finding them can be challenging for authors tackling their first nonfiction project. Whereas most of us know sites and blogs where we can find excellent writing and analysis by fellow fans, even extremely knowledgeable fans probably don’t know the major Tolkien studies journals, for example.

Tolkien-Based Texts

This seems obvious, right? Look in the books! Don’t neglect, however, to think about whether an ebook version might be more useful for your particular project. For example, if you’re looking for all mentions of a particular concept (music, war, love) or a particular character, an ebook can make finding these easier. It’s also easier to track down that passage that you know exists but you can’t remember where you read it.

Tolkien’s major texts are now available as ebooks, as well as several of the posthumous volumes. (Here is the list of what’s available on Kindle.) However, all of his books have been made into ebook form unofficially, in versions that fans pass around among themselves. Ask around, and it shouldn’t take long to find what you need.

Finding Scholarly Articles

One of the main ways that scholars share their research is through articles in scholarly journals. Journal articles vary in how easily accessible they are to the general public: Some journals, like the Journal of Tolkien Research, are open-access and available for free online. Others are buried behind paywalls, and you will need to work harder to access them without an academic affiliation. Although it’s unfortunate, there’s nothing wrong with deciding that a particularly thorny article to obtain is not worth the energy (and possibly cost) it takes to procure it.

I cannot emphasize enough, however, that scholarly articles are not just for people who identify as scholars. Most Tolkien fans can more than understand what they have to say and engage with the ideas that they present, so don’t be deterred from looking at these sources because they have the word scholarly attached.

If you want to use scholarly articles in your nonfiction, there are two steps: finding articles that discuss your topic and obtaining a full-text copy of them.

Step One: Finding Articles

  • Begin with a database. Most databases you can search from the Internet, but unless you have a subscription to the database, you often cannot access full-text articles. Libraries–especially university libraries–often subscribe to databases that you can access for free, and some databases allow a limited amount of reading for free. If you find an article that you want to use but can’t access the full-text, copy down the author(s), title, journal, journal number, and page number and proceed to Step Two. Below are some of the databases that I find most useful when researching in Tolkien studies.It’s also important to note that different databases index different journals, so you may draw a blank on one and turn up a treasure trove on another.
    • Project MUSE. Project MUSE is a humanities database with a geeky bent, providing access to journals like Tolkien Studies. Unfortunately, Project MUSE allows only institutional access, but it can be a good place to start in locating possible sources on Tolkien-related topics. (MUSE does allow alumni access, so if you graduated from a university that subscribes, you may be able to access articles.)
    • JSTOR. JSTOR maintains an excellent collection of arts and humanities articles. You can read three articles online every two weeks for free with a free JSTOR account.
    • Google Scholar. Google Scholar pulls much more broadly than a typical academic database. You’ll turn up more hard-to-find content–conference proceedings, Master’s theses, doctoral dissertations–but you also turn up more garbage. In some cases, a full-text version is offered; I have to caution, though, that a lot of times these links will send you face-first into a paywall.
    • Wheaton College Tolkien Database. Unlike the others listed above, you will not be able to access full-text articles here. However, this database contains some of the more obscure (but often still important) works for Tolkien studies, and you can search in Tolkien-specific categories.
    • Council of Elrond Bibliography. While not a database, the Council of Elrond site provides a bibliography of scholarly books and articles written about Tolkien that is comprehensive and useful enough that I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it.
  • Search the database. Tolkien studies isn’t a field of study particularly overflowing with scholarship. I usually keep my search terms very generalized, e.g., “Tolkien cosmogony” or “Tolkien creation myth.” If you’re looking for material on a subject outside of Tolkien studies, you may have to refine your search terms or chance ending up with thousands of results. Most databases allow an advanced search that limits the search by publication date (generally, you should aim for more recent), article type, peer-review status, etc.
  • Look at the sources of your sources. If you have a book or article or two about your topic already, look at the bibliography or works cited provided by the author. You will very often find sources that would otherwise evade your notice.
  • Search specific journals in the field of Tolkien studies. There are quite a few journals that specialize in Tolkien, Inkling, and fantasy studies. Searching their specific sites or indexes can turn up articles you might otherwise have overlooked. You can also often order back issues from the journal’s website.
  • Fan studies resources. If your topic concerns fan studies, the Fan Studies Network maintains a list of fan studies journals. Most of them are open-access. The Organization for Transformative works maintains a fan studies bibliography that is searchable by hundreds of tags.

Step Two: Obtaining Articles

I’m going to level with you that this is usually the more difficult and frustrating half of the process of finding and obtaining scholarly articles. You may proceed with all due diligence and nonetheless come up empty-handed. This isn’t due to a lack of research skill most of the time but a system for sharing scholarly works that is warped and dysfunctional and heavily weighted in favor of the publishers over researchers.

  • Look at your list that you made in Step One. Before you do anything else, consider if you need to prioritize which sources you are going to look for first. If your list contains only three articles, you should be fine, but if you found twenty-five potential sources during Step One, you need to consider the feasibility of that. (I generally assume a minimum of one hour to read and mark up a scholarly article.) If your list is long, identify which sources you think will be most useful and start there. If you draw a blank, you can move further down the list.
  • Plug the title into a search engine. Authors will often put their published work online on personal or university websites or article repositories like, and some journals are open-source and can be read online by anyone. In other instances, Google Books scans journal volumes, and you may be able to read all or part of an article online.
  • Check nearby libraries. WorldCat is an online catalog that will find the libraries nearest to your location that hold the article or book that you need. You might draw a blank (the screencap of sample WorldCat results to the right, for example, show that the nearest library for the article I’m looking for is almost 40 miles away and in another country–but I also live more in the middle of nowhere than the average person), but you might also be surprised to find a library a short distance from your home or workplace has what you need.
  • Consider interlibrary loan. Again depending on where you live, your local library may have an interlibrary loan agreement with other libraries, such as university libraries, and be able to supply you with copies of articles and books. Talk to your local librarian about your options.
  • Ask around. Other fandom researchers may have access to databases, online libraries, and other resources through academic institutions or personal subscriptions. Post what you need to your fannish social media spaces or Tolkien-related websites and you might be surprised at who can help you.
  • Contact the author. Authors want to be read. They want their ideas to be discussed by other Tolkien scholars. The vast majority of authors do not like their work being locked away and made nearly inaccessible to readers any more than independent scholars like the rigmarole it takes to obtain it. If you can find a contact email for the author of an article, they may be able to provide you with a copy of the article.

WorldCat results for an article according to my location in Vermont

Finding Books

Books are slightly easier from a research standpoint, simply because there are far fewer of them than scholarly articles and they tend to be easier to obtain for a non-academic. Most of us are used to purchasing books new or used online, and a book often feels like a more worthwhile investment than the same amount of money dropped to download an article or journal back issue.

If you don’t want to purchase the book, the process is similar to that for finding scholarly articles. You can begin by checking nearby libraries via WorldCat and inquiring with your local library about the possibility of obtaining the book via interlibrary loan.

Here are some other tips and tricks that I use when looking for books online:

  • Try Google Books. It is rare when you will find an entire book available online via Google Books, especially in Tolkien studies. However, Google Books can be useful in other ways. If you need only a chapter or a single essay (in a collection), you may be able to view all or most of it via Google Books. If you’re not sure whether a particular book should occupy a top spot on your list of sources to find, Google Books can also allow you a preview of the table of contents, index, and select pages in some instances. (The “look inside” feature offered by Amazon is similar.)
  • Single chapters and interlibrary loan. Likewise, if you need just one or a few chapters out of a book and your library participates in interlibrary loan, you may be able to have those chapters digitally sent to you by the lending library, which can save you time and money on borrowing the entire book.
  • Questia. Questia is a subscription service to an online library; however, you can search the site without registering to see if the book you are looking for is available, and some books are available to read for free. As a graduate student, I often found books I was looking for in the humanities on Questia. (The site also advertises access to scholarly journals, but aside from its archive of Mythlore, I’ve been less impressed with this aspect of the site than the ebook library.) You used to be able to take the site for a free trial run, but it looks like they caught on to my tactic of advising researchers to sign up for the free trial and then doing a marathon of research through the site during that 24 hours. Too bad.
  • Public domain books. If you’re looking for an older source that is in the public domain, you can probably find it for free on sites like and Project Gutenberg. These sites can be particularly useful if you’re looking for a translation of an ancient or medieval text, a mythological source, or a work of classic literature.

Fan-Written Scholarship

Fan-written scholarship is a much more comfortable arena for most of us because these are the people and the spaces we know. Next week, I’ll talk more about evaluating sources: how to know if a source is of a good enough quality to use in your research. (And while I’m mentioning this in the section on fan-written scholarship because this is where I expect people will start waving their hands if I don’t, believe me: This applies just as much to the sections above on traditional scholarship.) This section is going to be understandably brief: mostly tricks I’ve learned over the years that aren’t quite common knowledge for new researchers.

  • Embrace the advanced search. Advanced search allows you to further narrow down your search results by a variety of parameters. Here is Google’s advanced search page. If, for example, you want to find all the posts about Elwing and maternal abandonment on Tumblr, you can more easily accomplish that with advanced search.
  • Embrace Boolean search. The New York Public Library defines Boolean searches as those that “allow you to combine words and phrases using the words AND, OR, NOT (known as Boolean operators) to limit, broaden, or define your search.” For example, Boolean is useful if you want to find something about Elwing that isn’t about her abandonment of her children, e.g., I just ran a search on Google for “elwing -abandon” The New York Public Library has a concise but helpful tutorial on how to do a Boolean search.
  • Nothing really goes away online. Websites and fan-created resources often disappear when their owners are no longer interested in the fandom or no longer want to pay for web hosting. The Wayback Machine saves copies of webpages and often allows you to find and access deleted content. Do I have to enter a plea for using this ethically, not as a tool for perpetuating wank ad infinitum but for continuing to use invaluable fan-created resources even after the site has closed? (Note also that sites that forbid crawling in their robots.txt file, like some LiveJournal accounts and anything on, are not archived here.)
  • Don’t forget the informal. Most of us belong to mailing lists, communities, forums, and other social media sites where we informally discuss Tolkien. On such groups, I have sometimes poured hours of effort into researching and writing about topics under discussion or answering questions from other group members. Fan-created scholarship doesn’t exist only as shiny essays on special sites created to showcase it. Take care, however, not to be a jerk in doing so, which brings me to …
  • Recognize cultural differences between fandom and academia. I am not a huge proponent of asking for permission to link to or discuss content that has been publicly posted online. I am, however, even less of a proponent of being a jerk. It is courteous to let a fan writer know if you’re using their ideas in your own nonfiction. I request this of my own work, not because I believe I have the right to veto another person’s mentioning something I posted in public but because I want to see how my work is being received and participate in further conversations surrounding it. If you feel more comfortable asking before you link to or use another person’s ideas (with credit), go for it. (Although I’d also ask you to respect those of us who have permissions in place for discussing and linking to our work by not asking and trusting that if we’ve gone to the trouble to put this stuff up, then we really mean it.)

    Absolutely ask (and respect the answer) before quoting something or discussing written as part of a private, semi-private, or locked conversation, or in a space where a person expects a degree of privacy (such as on a mailing list that anyone can join but that restricts its archives to registered members). Don’t be a jerk.

    And the final caveat I’ll add: If you’re going to argue against a particular fan’s essay or ideas in your work, please ask first how they want you to handle that. These are fans; they are not journalists or academics who expect as part of their jobs that they will have to field opposition to their writing and the ideas they share. It’s not cool to potentially blindside someone with negative attention and wank, no matter how abhorrent you find their ideas. Again, don’t be a jerk.

Please feel free to use the comments to share other tips and resources!

Art Credit: Illustration to Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” by W. E. F. Britten; image restoration and copyright held by Adam Cuerden.


6 Responses to “Meta on Meta, Part 3: The Quest for Sources”

  1. Independence1776 says:

    Libraries–especially university libraries–often subscribe to databases that you can access for free, and some databases allow a limited amount of reading for free.

    I cannot emphasize this enough: public libraries often subscribe to these databases, too. You will need a membership in the specific library system to access them because said access requires you to be logged into the library website. (For example, I can access the databases my city library subscribes to; I cannot access the ones the local universities subscribe to nor any of the nearby county libraries.)

    If you have a local university, it is worth checking to see if they have a library card for non-students. They may cost money and they may have to be renewed every year. What privileges the card gives you may vary; I don’t know how that works. (I actually did get a one of these cards specifically for fic research. I wanted to get the book through ILL, but was told it could take six months to arrive… and then the librarian said one of the local universities had it on their shelf, so go get a card from them. But that was a few years ago and I let the card lapse because I only used it the once.)

    Mind, I only have experience with American libraries, so I can’t speak for everywhere.

    • Dawn says:

      It’s definitely a good idea to check the public library first, but I’m also wary of making generalizations: I’m fairly sure I’m not going to get into Project MUSE or JSTOR via my local public library because most of them can’t even afford to be open more than a couple days per week! :) It’s the difference between a city public library system and a rural library that serves only a few hundred people. (And I can’t even begin to speculate what libraries outside the U.S. do and do not offer …)

      University library privileges also vary from state to state, I suspect; Maryland university libraries were extremely open to public use, up to the extent that McDaniel College (a private college) would lend to Carroll County residents and their catalogs were merged. Likewise, the public can use University System of Maryland databases on-campus for free. I’m honestly surprised that public universities would charge for access, but I suppose it’s further caution against generalizing my limited experiences …

      • Brooke says:

        Not just public universities charge, either. I know around where I live library access is decided by public vote on funding on a county and town basis. Since the majority of residents of my county haven’t voted to fund a library, there is no public library available on a free basis to anyone besides the residents of the major town and it is a somewhat large yearly charge to get a library card even if you are a county resident.

        I’d add that the same “Ask around” that applies to articles can apply to books, especially if all you need is one chapter. I’ve run around and scanned a couple pages or a chapter before for people, and I’ve had people do it for me.

        • Dawn says:

          I’ve copied and mailed entire books out before! 😀 (Granted, that was when I had better copier access than I do now …) In the push to do things through official channels, it’s easy to forget unofficial channels, like asking a friend with university library access to download an article or emailing the author for a copy. I agree that this can’t be emphasized enough.

      • Independence1776 says:

        my local public library because most of them can’t even afford to be open more than a couple days per week!


        Yeah, library service definitely varies. I just didn’t want people to see “especially university libraries” and assume their public library won’t have access.

        But ugh. Library policies are a pain when it comes to free versus not free. Louisville’s is free; Pensacola’s wasn’t. I honestly can’t remember if the University of Louisville does; looking at their website just now it doesn’t seem like it because all that’s needed is a valid, adult, Kentucky ID. But it wouldn’t surprise me if private colleges did charge a fee. (I’d honestly never heard of a college library being that open before.)

        • Dawn says:

          Yeah, that definitely wasn’t my intent, so the clarification is good! :) It was more a reminder to check with local colleges and universities if drawing a blank at the public library; many people probably don’t think the public has access, sometimes even free access, to these resources.

          I considered McDaniel for all of 30 seconds when doing my teacher certification, saw what they charged, and LOL’ed myself right off their website. To their credit, though, they seem to make a genuine effort to be part of the community in Westminster and Carroll County at large. Astronomical tuition aside, they seem to be a real force for good in a rural county that might otherwise lack access to what they provide.

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