An annotated bibliography is an organized list of sources on a particular topic. Each entry consists of two parts: 1) the citation, in proper reference style; and 2) the annotation (a brief, one-paragraph discussion of the source). But an annotated bibliography is more than just a list of sources. The content of the annotation is key: it is both descriptive and evaluative. That is, the decisions you make about which references you select and how you describe them make all the difference.
PURPOSE. The purpose of an annotated bibliography is to present a fairly comprehensive, focused selection of scholarly sources on a topic or to give a narrowed overview of a particular topic as a preliminary step for a future study or research essay. The goal is to be both descriptive and critical, exemplifying research, summarizing, and critical analysis skills.
NOTE. There are general principles of annotated bibliographies, but requirements vary by discipline and purpose. When in doubt, or if something conflicts, check with your professor or TA.
Plan your assignment now:
Understand your assignment.
This should take about 2% of your time
Before you start, make sure you understand what you’re being asked to do. What are the requirements of this annotated bibliography? Consider:
- How many and what type of sources are required?
- What format/reference style are you to use for your citations?
- Are you to write in complete sentences or bullet points?
- Has your professor asked for anything specific?
If you have questions after reading through the assignment write-up and syllabus, ask your professor or TA.
Select a topic
This should take about 5% of your time
A workable and specific topic is especially important if the annotated bibliography has been assigned as a precursor to a research essay. Here are some tips on how to choose a topic.
Once you’ve got a topic in mind, do some initial research to make sure it’s a good (workable) topic. Remember: you can also ask your prof or TA about your topic choice.
Conduct research, select sources
This should take about 30% of your time
An annotated bibliography should be comprehensive, yet focused. Your goal is to get a solid overview of the topic (e.g., who are the big names in the field, what are the seminal works, are there any ongoing or important debates to consider, etc.). Get expert help from a subject librarian who has relevant content-area expertise. The librarian can help you figure out how and where to search, what keywords and which databases to use, and how to know when you’re done searching.
In this step, you are previewing sources.
- Keep track of your research using a citation management tool.
- Take minimal notes and focus on sections like the title, abstract, and discussion section to help you decide whether to include the source in your annotated bibliography.
Select sources for inclusion based on importance, relevance, and usefulness for your topic. If you’re allowed to include only a specific number of citations, make sure they’re the ones that best serve your topic. Be sure to include a variety of perspectives.
TIP: Shortlist a couple more than you are required to include in case, upon reading, the source is not as pertinent as you thought.
Read and evaluate
This should take about 25% of your time
Now that you’ve made a list of sources to include in your annotated bibliography, it’s time to read and evaluate them. A good annotation is concise but informed. It’s difficult to be concise! Focused and effective reading and note-taking will help you write good annotations. So:
Here are ten things to look for when conducting a critical appraisal of your sources. Think about the connections, relationships, and patterns in what you’re reading. Ask yourself how each source relates to, supports, or counters what you understand about your topic.
- do a good read of the piece,
- take lots of thorough, thoughtful notes with a specific purpose (e.g., summarize, short quotes, evaluations) in mind), and
- distill the information down to the key ideas and most important points for your topic/purpose.
This should take about 15% of your time
Start by converting your notes to into point form annotations for each source. Think about paring down the information you have to answer specific questions. For example, comment on
- the author’s qualifications,
- the main argument or purpose,
- the intended audience,
- the main conclusions,
- how this work compares or contrasts with another one that you’ve cited, or
- the value of the source for your specific purposes.
One strategy is to select a source to start with (e.g., a seminal work, one that is foundational in some way to the topic) then work outwards, noting the interconnections and relationships between the included sources. Try mind mapping to help you organize and keep track of relationships.
Once you have point form information for each source, go back and make them into full sentences (if required) and/or clarify the wording.
NOTE: You might go back and forth between steps 4 and 5 several times rather than completing them one at a time.
This should take about 4% of your time
Take a break from researching and writing to format your citations in the appropriate style (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago). List your sources (and their annotations) in the appropriate order (e.g., alphabetical, chronological, thematic, by topic).
If you’re not sure what style or order to use, check the syllabus, the assignment write-up, or ask your prof or TA.
This should take about 17% of your time
Revision is about the big picture. Did you do what you set out to do? Did you represent each of the sources fairly and accurately? Does what you researched and wrote match what your professor asked for?
Next, check sentence structure, word choice/vocabulary, and grammar. Here are some of the most common errors in style, grammar, and punctuation.
- Remember that your aim is to be comprehensive, but focused. Have you addressed your topic in the references you included? How you discussed them in the annotation? Are there conflicting points of view represented?
- To focus your revisions, pick a specific goal each time you revise (e.g., “This time, I’ll make sure I’ve included some critical analysis of each citation. After that, I’ll focus on how the citations I included relate to each other”).
Finalize your assignment
This should take about 1% of your time
Step away from your work (e.g., leave it for a day, or even just while you have lunch), then proofread one last time. This is your last chance to find that annoying typo!
This should take about 1% of your time
Congratulations—you did it!
If your professor has assigned this annotated bibliography as the first step to a bigger assignment (e.g., research essay), take some time now to make notes about the topic, next steps, or ideas for an argument. Doing this while the topic/material is fresh in your mind will save you some time and effort later in the term!