You're probably already familiar with a bibliography - it's the list of references you include at the end of a research paper. So what's an annotated bibliography then? The short explanation is that an annotated bibliography is just an expanded version of your regular one where, instead of just listing the title of the resource, you summarize it and explain why it was important to your research.
What should I include in an annotated bibliography?
You have some leeway when it comes to what goes in your annotation. The most basic information you should include is a simple summary of the resource. For a scientific journal article you might provide a summary of the experiment methodology then present the author's results and conclusions. An entry for a historical primary source document would tell the reader where the document came from, who wrote it, and provide a summary of its contents. You'll want to be sure to frame the summary to fit your research paper. For example, if you cite a book there is often no need to summarize the entire thing; instead, focus your annotation on the chapters or sections that address your topic. Often a summary will be all that's required for an annotation.
More in-depth annotated bibliographies may require you to assess the source after you provide your summary. Basically, you want to tell the reader whether the resource you're citing is reliable. If it's a scientific paper, what problems or limitations did the researchers experience? If it's a historical source, how trustworthy is the author? Is there any information missing from this resource that affects your ability to use it? For example, an essay on a controversial figure or issue might discuss only one side of the argument, a fact you should point out in your annotation when discussing the accuracy of the source.
The last thing you may be asked to include in an annotation is an evaluation of the source's relevance to your research. Why is this particular source important for your argument? How does it relate to the other sources you consulted? Do you agree or disagree with the author's argument? Detail exactly which parts of your thesis the source supports, or, if you disagree with the source, explain how you're going to use the opposing argument in your paper. You might also want to address how this research fits in the larger framework of the topic you're addressing.
How do I write an annotated bibliography?
The first step in writing an annotated bibliography is to know what's expected of you. There's no set style for annotated bibliographies, so familiarize yourself with the guidelines for your particular class before you start. A few questions you should ask:
- What needs to be included? As detailed above, there are three main topics you can address in an annotated bibliography. Ask your teacher for annotated bibliography help and clarify whether you need to include a summary, an analysis of the source, an evaluation of its useful to your research, or some combination of those three.
- Can you use first person? Annotated bibliographies are usually written in the third person, but if you're writing an evaluation of a resource's important to your work you may be allowed to use the first person.
- How long should it be? Annotations in a bibliography can vary widely. Sometime all you'll need is a short paragraph that summarizes the work, while other times you may need as much as a page to provide an in-depth review of the resource. In general, each entry will be around 150 words, but there's no set rule.
The second key step in doing an annotated bibliography is to do the research. You need to collect resources that are relevant to your paper topic and read them thoroughly - you won't be able to evaluate them if you don't know what they're saying. It will help if you take notes as you read. If you note relevant passages and arguments as you go it will be easy to look back and identify important ideas when writing your bibliography
Once you've done the reading you can start getting ready to write. Prepare a list of topics you want to cover in each annotation and go back through your sources to find what you need. For example, an in-depth annotation might include these four pieces of information:
- What is the context for the source?
- Can you summarize the resource's main argument?
- Is this resource accurate and reliable?
- Why is this resource important for your paper?
Once you know the answer to each of those four questions, it's easy to write out your bibliography.
Below are three examples you can use as annotated bibliography help that range from simple to more detailed. The first includes just a summary of the work:
Dawson, Christopher. Progress and Religion: An Historical Inquiry. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 1929.
Progress and Religion: An Historical Inquiry was written by noted Catholic scholar Christopher Dawson in the period of relative calm between World War I and World War II. In the book, Dawson claims that religion is the soul of culture, and that a society which has lost its spiritual roots is doomed to fail. He traces the history of religious and philosophical thought up to the present-day horror of World War I and argues that the world needs to turn away from totalitarianism and toward Christianity in order to survive.
The next example includes all three of the sections listed above. It provides a summary, details the reliability of the source, and explains how the source is used in the paper:
Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Ed. Robert Latham. New York: Penguin Press. 2000. Print.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys is a private diary kept by an English naval administrator from 1660-1690. In the diary, Pepys discusses his personal life, including his wife and health, alongside important national issues of the day such military maneuvers and arguments in Parliament. A definitive translation was printed in 1970, and today the diary is one of history's most-cited primary sources. The diary will be used in this paper to demonstrate the attitude of fear created by the plague in London during the 17th century.
The third example is a longer annotation that spends more time going over the details of the source, it's validity, and how it is used in the paper. Note that this example makes use of the first person:
Cowles, Henry. "The Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan." Botanical Gazette. 27 (1899): 95-117.
Henry Cowles's seminal paper on plant community succession laid the groundwork for over a century of ecological experimentation and debate. In his 1899 paper, Cowles argues that plant communities are a result of geographic features in any given region, and that these communities evolve over time in a set series of patterns. He believed that there was no climax community, that is, he argued that plant communities were constantly changing in response to the environment, and that community evolution was not a set path with a single endpoint. Of course, the idea of community succession and the existence of climax communities is still debated today, but at the moment scientific opinion sides with Cowles in theorizing that climax communities do not exist outside of models. In this paper, I will cite Cowles's theories to demonstrate the long history of the debate surrounding climax communities before presenting my own evidence that suggests climax communities can in fact be found in nature.