How To Write An Annotated Bibliography

I don’t think too many students are ever excited to start an annotated bibliography, but it is actually one of these really useful tasks that you learn a lot from and that can be very handy in your own research. Now you know probably what a bibliography is. It’s a list of references — a list of articles and books and so on. And “annotate” just means that we provide a note or two about what is in in each item, what the contents of each particular text are. So that’s what an annotated bibliography is, and it can be simply one item, as we have here. So we have a citation, then we have a summary. It can be just one item like this, or it can be actually this pattern repeated many times.

And an annotated bibliography can be as big or as small as you want it to be, but very often these bibliographies are written about a particular topic, or subject, or author, or period, and they help you to understand the kind of research in a particular field. So if you’re doing let’s say an undergraduate dissertation or you’re starting on your PhD, doing an annotated bibliography just gives you a really good sense of what is out there in terms of criticism and research. You can also do this for other scholars, so there are lots of online annotated bibliographies for instance, and it just really helps out other scholars to find material that’s interesting and worthwhile. They don’t just have to go by the title, but they can actually look at the summary and figure out: is this useful or not? So that’s generally what an annotated bibliography looks like then.

In the small version you just have one citation and a summary, and you can repeat this as many times as you like. You can organize these citations and summaries alphabetically if you like, you can have different sections by topic let’s say, so you can talk about theoretical works versus practical works, or you can organize it by primary works versus secondary works — whatever suits your fancy … as long as your annotated bibliography is neatly organized. The other thing you can do is you can also add some explanatory notes, maybe at the beginning or as you go along, just to kind of say what the point of the bibliography is. So maybe a little intro, or for each section you can add a little line or two just describing what that section is about. But often your instructor will tell you what to do for that.

Now when it comes to the summary itself I guess I should first point out that the citation you can format it in whatever style that you’re using. That can be APA, MLA — whatever is appropriate for your discipline. But as we get to the actual summary here, there are a number of things to consider, and first of all you have to consider the kind of tone that you adopt. There are kind of two camps as to what the best tone for this kind of summary is. Some people insist that you should always be neutral. They want you to be neutral and dispassionate. You shouldn’t really say what your opinion is.

The other camp (and this is kind of the opposite point of view) suggests that you should always be evaluating the quality of what you’re describing. You should say if it’s good or not, if the reader should actually be going to photocopy the article or print it out, and if it’s not then leave it alone. So should we have neutral summaries or evaluative summaries? My preference is for neutral but there are other people out there who definitely say you might as well evaluate a bit. I think as long as you’re consistent and you know what you want to do, then either one is fine. If you’re going to go for the evaluating kind, there’s no exact way to do that.

Some people will say first you should summarize and then evaluate, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can say right at the beginning that this particular piece of research sucks — if that’s the way you’re gonna go. But this particular example does not evaluate. It simply summarizes. The other thing to consider is the kind of contrast between content (the content of the article) and the argument of … well, I said article but it could be any kind of text. It could be a book or something like that. So we need to distinguish between the content and the argument.

The content is simply a bunch of topics that are discussed in this particular text. The argument is how those topics fit together. And I always like to start this kind of summary with something like the author’s name (and you just have to give the last name; you don’t have to keep repeating the first name) and then some kind of verb that suggests that the author is arguing something, or suggesting, or he or she believes something, or claims. Some kind of strong verb like that that forces me to actually state what the argument is, and when I read the text I often go looking for the thesis (maybe even quote it directly) in order to really indicate what the author is trying to argue. How do the different pieces, the different parts of the text, hang together and work together? So don’t just say “Cassal … describes” or “talks” about the slander of these these two characters, and he talks about these themes and those themes. That’s not really good enough.

You really need to say what he is specifically arguing. As you can see going through this, this is a very specific summary. This is a very short article (it’s only three pages) so it’s easy to do this, but it’s always good to be as specific as you can. In terms of the length of a summary, it’s really up to you, so if this is your own annotated bibliography it’s up to you what you want to do with it. But obviously the longer it is, the harder it is going to be for the reader to scan and kind of get a sense of what the different texts are about. So in that sense I would suggest that you keep it to one paragraph as much as possible. A paragraph can be one sentence if it’s a fairly straightforward article, and it’s not that relevant, or it can be quite a bit longer if it’s a book let’s say and it’s really crucial to the research that you’re doing or the particular topic.

Then maybe you want a little bit more. But you definitely have quite a bit of leeway in terms of how long you want to go. The other thing that I suggest to people is that it’s nice to have a quote or two in your annotated bibliography. You don’t have to stick it full of quotations, but in this case here I have I’ve picked a quote because I felt it really captured one of the things that the author is saying. The other reason for this is that often you’re creating an annotated bibliography for yourself, so if you’re gonna write an essay later, let’s say, it’s nice to have some of these quotes already inside your summary because then you can use them again and you can really get a sense of what the author’s own words are.

But don’t do this too much. And the other thing is don’t rely on the author’s abstract for your summary. That’s a bit like cheating, but it’s also not helpful because sometimes an author’s abstract is not actually all that clear and you may very well be able to do a better job, or the abstract that goes with the article isn’t really relevant to your research or not as relevant as specific parts of the article or book that you really want to focus on. Okay, so that’s generally what the annotated bibliography is about, and just to come back to this issue of why you should bother, I think it’s it’s great for really forcing yourself to understand the text, so that you dig into it and try to figure out what is it really saying. It helps you prep for your own writing — so kind of jump-starts your own writing. It allows you to keep meticulous notes in case you forget later what something was about.

And it’s very good for helping other scholars in your field to get a sense of what this field is about and to kind of speed up the introduction to particular topics and so on. Hopefully that helps you get a sense of what an annotated bibliography is about and maybe it won’t be quite as boring in the future.