This handout provides information about annotated bibliographies in MLA, APA, and CMS.
Contributors: Geoff Stacks, Erin Karper, Dana Bisignani, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-02-09 12:16:22
A bibliography is a list of sources (books, journals, Web sites, periodicals, etc.) one has used for researching a topic. Bibliographies are sometimes called "References" or "Works Cited" depending on the style format you are using. A bibliography usually just includes the bibliographic information (i.e., the author, title, publisher, etc.).
An annotation is a summary and/or evaluation. Therefore, an annotated bibliography includes a summary and/or evaluation of each of the sources. Depending on your project or the assignment, your annotations may do one or more of the following.
- Summarize: Some annotations merely summarize the source. What are the main arguments? What is the point of this book or article? What topics are covered? If someone asked what this article/book is about, what would you say? The length of your annotations will determine how detailed your summary is.
For more help, see our handout on paraphrasing sources.
- Assess: After summarizing a source, it may be helpful to evaluate it. Is it a useful source? How does it compare with other sources in your bibliography? Is the information reliable? Is this source biased or objective? What is the goal of this source?
For more help, see our handouts on evaluating resources.
- Reflect: Once you've summarized and assessed a source, you need to ask how it fits into your research. Was this source helpful to you? How does it help you shape your argument? How can you use this source in your research project? Has it changed how you think about your topic?
Your annotated bibliography may include some of these, all of these, or even others. If you're doing this for a class, you should get specific guidelines from your instructor.
Why should I write an annotated bibliography?
To learn about your topic: Writing an annotated bibliography is excellent preparation for a research project. Just collecting sources for a bibliography is useful, but when you have to write annotations for each source, you're forced to read each source more carefully. You begin to read more critically instead of just collecting information. At the professional level, annotated bibliographies allow you to see what has been done in the literature and where your own research or scholarship can fit. To help you formulate a thesis: Every good research paper is an argument. The purpose of research is to state and support a thesis. So, a very important part of research is developing a thesis that is debatable, interesting, and current. Writing an annotated bibliography can help you gain a good perspective on what is being said about your topic. By reading and responding to a variety of sources on a topic, you'll start to see what the issues are, what people are arguing about, and you'll then be able to develop your own point of view.
To help other researchers: Extensive and scholarly annotated bibliographies are sometimes published. They provide a comprehensive overview of everything important that has been and is being said about that topic. You may not ever get your annotated bibliography published, but as a researcher, you might want to look for one that has been published about your topic.
The format of an annotated bibliography can vary, so if you're doing one for a class, it's important to ask for specific guidelines.
The bibliographic information: Generally, though, the bibliographic information of the source (the title, author, publisher, date, etc.) is written in either MLA or APA format. For more help with formatting, see our MLA handout. For APA, go here: APA handout.
The annotations: The annotations for each source are written in paragraph form. The lengths of the annotations can vary significantly from a couple of sentences to a couple of pages. The length will depend on the purpose. If you're just writing summaries of your sources, the annotations may not be very long. However, if you are writing an extensive analysis of each source, you'll need more space.
You can focus your annotations for your own needs. A few sentences of general summary followed by several sentences of how you can fit the work into your larger paper or project can serve you well when you go to draft.
This is a general guide to writing annotated bibliographies. Before beginning to write your own annotated bibliography, always look at the course assignment sheet or check with your professor for specific instructions.
What is the Difference Between a Bibliography and an Annotated Bibliography?
- A bibliography is an organized list of works consulted when you are doing research on a particular topic, composed using the standard disciplinary referencing style (MLA, Chicago, APA, CSE, etc.), and placed at the end of a paper, journal article, chapter, or book
- An annotated bibliography is a separate paper, journal article, appendix to a journal article, or complete book consisting of a series of entries on a single theme, organized either alphabetically, by date, or by topic. Each entry consists of two parts that together form a single record:
- the citation in the proper referencing style
- a one-paragraph discussion (or "annotation") of the source listed above
How is the Annotation in an Annotated Bibliography Different from an Abstract?
- An abstract is a descriptive summary of a single longer text, with content summarized in the same order as the original. It is often found at the beginning of scholarly journal articles, in periodical indexes, or in electronic databases
- An annotation enables readers to see the relationship of a number of written works to each other and in the context of the topic studied
- Although what is required in annotated bibliographies differs from discipline to discipline, many annotations are both descriptive and critical and illustrate the writer's library research skills, summarizing expertise, point of view, analytical ability, and understanding of the field
What is the Purpose of an Annotated Bibliography?
- To present the reader with a fairly comprehensive, yet focused, selection of the scholarly sources on a given topic
- Provide a bird's-eye view or general review of a specialized field
- More narrowed prelude to a proposal for future study or to a review of literature
The disciplinary area and purpose of an individual annotated bibliography will determine its character. However, in most cases, it is your chance to:
- Provide an overview of your topic and illustrate that you know your subject well
- Show off your abilities to do bibliographical research
- Identify the theses or arguments of the books and articles you have chosen
- Place research on a particular topic in an historical context
- Assess the value of the reference for other scholars in the field and thus participate in the conversation of your academic community
- Describe the usefulness of the texts for your own research and distinguish areas for further research, thus helping you find your own way toward a working thesis argument
How Should You Format Your Annotated Bibliography?
Each entry in an annotated bibliography provides full bibliographical information (normally in the style* your department or discipline requires), then a paraphrase of, or commentary on, the source. Depending on the length of the annotated bibliography, these entries will be listed either alphabetically (typical in a short student paper), by ascending date, or by topic (in a long student paper).
*Note that each style guide suggests its own way of setting up an annotated bibliography.
There are also two writing styles in annotated bibliographies: one is to write in sentences, and the other, emphasizing conciseness, is to write in a kind of point-form using phrases rather than sentences. None of the examples in this handout uses the latter style, but an example of the point-form (or telegraphic style) would be: "An historical view of research in the field in the last century. Contains brief descriptions of important legislation." Ask your professor which style is preferable.
The text of an annotation normally ranges from two to ten sentences. This forces you to focus on the central ideas in the text and to write objectively.
A long annotated bibliography may be preceded by an introduction to the topic chosen, with a discussion of the rationale behind the selection of the entries for the bibliography as well as the exclusion of others, and the timeframe covered. In a very long annotated bibliography, the entries are often numbered (see examples A and B), but this is rare in student papers. As suggested above, other options for longer annotated bibliographies would be to arrange entries under topic and subtopic headings, or in chronological order. Again, check with your professor to find out what organizational style is preferred.
What Referencing Style Should You Use in an Annotated Bibliography?
Generally, MLA, Chicago, or APA style is used, although, as you can see from several of our examples in this handout, this is not always the case in some disciplines. Ask your professor what referencing style you should use. But whatever style you use, make sure the appearance and form are consistent throughout your text.
The Process of Writing and Annotated Bibliography
1. Find and record citations for books, journal articles, and other primary documents on your topic
What types of sources should you be looking for and how can you find them?
- This depends upon the discipline, but one good rule is to have some primary sources (original texts, research reports, or documents) as well as secondary (from academic journal articles where a learned author is analyzing other people's work). In the sciences, published journal articles in which scientists are reporting their own research are primary sources
- Try to find published bibliographies (in books, journals, or online) to get a quick start. Look in the Book Review Index for reviews of books, or in online biographical sources to find out more about authors
- Look at reference lists or bibliographies in related (and preferably recent) articles and books. Repeated names indicate that these are essential sources and you should probably include them in your bibliography
- The sources you choose should have some value to your own research question. Even if they don't bear directly on your subject, they might use a theoretical framework that you can apply to (or reject for) your own work
- When you are using a database, note keywords or synonyms you might use as alternatives to find materials that are related to your area of interest
- Use a citation manager to collect citations and record summaries
- When you begin to work on your annotations, start with the major scholarly works first. (You will recognize them as the works most referred to and most cited in other reference lists.) This will give you a good grounding and provide the context for the rest of your entries
How can you evaluate your sources while reading?
- Skim abstracts, prefaces, tables of contents, and indexes to see if it will be useful for you to read the text thoroughly. Remember to check for synonyms to describe your topic if you can't find the exact word or phrase readily in the index
- Take notes as you read. Bibliographic details, a summary of contents, notations of methodology, theoretical perspective, pertinence to your project, and biographical data (about the author) can be stapled to photocopies or printouts of papers, or paper-clipped to books
- Make a chart. Down the side write the names of the authors and texts, and along the top write important sub-topics (such as the author's reputation or background, intended audience, theoretical perspective, centrality to your own research topic, contributions to the field, gaps in the approach, evidence used, comprehensiveness of coverage, level of generality, accuracy of details, date of source, etc.). This will allow you to compare and contrast the value of the works from your chosen perspectives
2. Choose how you will organize your annotated bibliography
- Remember, there are three ways of organizing your annotated bibliography: by author alphabetically, by date, or by subtopics or sections. The latter will not be necessary in a very short paper
- Decide whether you need to write a paragraph as a preface, explaining the scope of your annotated bibliography (within certain dates, within geographic parameters, only in a certain genre, etc.), or noting any other particulars (such as abbreviations, etc.). Most of the time, undergraduate annotated bibliographies are relatively short and simple, and will not need such a preface
3. Write your annotations and save them in a file
- As soon as you read each work, compose what you think is a finished annotation for that text and proofread it while you still have the text in front of
- you to check for any errors. Save your entry for the finished draft of your paper. Don't just make brief notes that you intend to return to when you are writing up your final draft, since later you may not remember what you meant when you made the note
- After finishing a few entries, check to see that that the taxonomy and annotation style is appropriate for your purposes. You may find at this stage that your first entries are too wordy and include too much detail, or that your entries are stylistically inconsistent. Don't worry; that's normal at this stage
- Decide what you need to do to make all of your entries appropriate and consistent; revise what you have done, and continue to create the rest of your annotations with the first entries as a guide
4. After you have written your first draft, check it over
- First, check each citation for accuracy and consistency. Have you focused on the major points of the text? Make sure that you have not mixed the two types of annotated bibliography, with some as only paraphrases, and others as commentary or critical annotations
- Then, check your assignment instructions once again to make certain you have included all the elements you need in each annotation. To do this, make up a checklist and compare each entry against the list
- Read through your document for errors in grammar, punctuation, and style, and to make sure that your annotations (a) are accurate in their description of the original texts, and (b) read logically and coherently. Be sure to note (and check for accuracy) any odd spellings of names
- Check your tenses and be as consistent as is logically possible. Historical present is the tense most commonly used (the use of the present tense to refer to an event in the past), e.g., "Sedgewick relies on ridicule, sarcasm and fear-mongering to argue…." There may be some reasons to use the past tense, i.e., reporting on a paper you heard delivered at a conference, e.g., "The presenter spoke about artistic autonomy" or referring to an historical event in the past, e.g., "Brecht's thought was undergoing radicalization during and after the collaborations."
- Avoid the passive voice if at all possible, e.g., Change "Artistic autonomy was spoken about by the presenter" to "The presenter spoke about artistic autonomy."
- Make certain that you have avoided using quotations, except when the words quoted are important terms that you wish to highlight
- Look over your work to see if you have used key annotation verbs such as demonstrates, asserts, speculates
Samples from Annotated Bibliographies
Annotated Bibliographies in the Arts & Social Sciences vs. the Sciences
In the arts and some social sciences, annotated bibliographies will be judged by how critical and analytical they are and often by how the writer links the text's usefulness to his or her potential or imaginary research project. In the sciences and some of the more scientific of the social sciences, annotated bibliographies are rarely used; when they are used, they will often be primarily summary or descriptive—that is, they will paraphrase the original text.
1. Summary or Descriptive Annotations
The purpose of the summary or descriptive annotated bibliography is to give the reader a summary of the main findings or arguments in a source with no analysis or evaluation. Although annotated bibliographies are rarely used in the sciences, when they are used they often take this form. The following sample is from a scientific source 1. Note that this bibliographic entry follows a scientific referencing style. It is all single-spaced, and the annotation is numbered (e.g., 1312) since it is taken from a long book that is an annotated bibliography.
1312. Wilson, M.C. (1996): Late Quaternary vertebrates and the opening of the ice-free corridor, with special reference to the genus Bison. Quarternary International 32: 97-105. One way to gauge the ecological opening of the ice-free corridor is to establish the chronology for the arrival of immigrant animal species. Bison (Bison) have excellent potential because of the abundance of their remains. Bison of 'southern' appearance [referable to ancient bison (Bison bison antiquus)] were present as far N [sic] as the Peace River region until about 10,000 B.P. Bison populations in western Canada apparently underwent a rapid change at that time, such that barely 500 years later, bison of 'northern' appearance [referable to western bison (Bison bison occidentalis)] were established. The rapidity and pervasiveness of this change seem to defy an evolutionary explanation rooted in punctuated equilibrium or phenotypic change, and could indicate a sudden population influx through the newly opened corridor.
2. Critical Annotations
A critical annotation goes beyond simple summarizing of the material in the original.
- It evaluates the reliability of the information presented; the authors' credentials (outlier or influential?); the value of the reference for other scholars; and, if relevant, the appropriateness of the methodologies followed
- It evaluates the conclusions, and discusses how successfully the authors achieve their aims. If the annotated bibliography is intended as a first step to a review of literature leading to a major paper, thesis, or dissertation, then it will also evaluate how useful the information and methodological approaches will be for someone doing research on a particular project
- It may also indicate your own critical reactions to the sources
This might be done by indicating whether the information presented is at odds with other authors' findings or approaches to the subject— and hypothesizing why. For example, did this writer have access to sources that former writers were unable to access; did the writer fail to take important information into consideration? Did the author take a certain approach as the result of a particular theoretical viewpoint? It is always important to note when the author of one of the texts in your annotated bibliography is an outlier (espousing an opinion or approach that is different from the majority).
In the following examples, the critical comments are highlighted in bold text.
Example A—MLA Style:
In the first example 2, the style is MLA, and the original author has used an abbreviation for the title of the journal. Such abbreviations would be used only when the same journal titles are repeated often in a long annotated bibliography and when the abbreviations are identified in a preface to the annotations. Note that in MLA style the left margin should be 1 inch, with double-spacing between and within entries, and the second or subsequent lines should be indented a further ½ inch. Note also that the actual annotation does not begin on a separate line from the citation. You will not normally need to assign a number for each citation unless you are so instructed.
556. Fisher, Alexander J. "Paul Hindemith, Gottfried Benn, and the Defense of the Autonomy of Art in the Late Weimar Republic." HJb 28 (1999): 11-53. Useful but uneven article suggesting that Hindemith's desire to collaborate with Brecht and Benn was motivated by his desire to maintain the artistic autonomy of music against its appropriation by various social agendas (Lehrstück and Lindberghflug as a reaction to the cultural conservatism of the Jugendmusikbewegung; Das Unaufhörliche as a reaction to Brecht's socialism). Hindemith's incomplete understanding of the collaborators' agendas may not have been entirely his fault, as Brecht's thought was undergoing radicalization during and after the collaborations; Benn's nihilism was much less known by the reading public than was his stance on art, and his susceptibility to Nazi ideology apparent only in retrospect. All this is correct up to a point; however, the article falters, as did Hindemith, by failing to acknowledge or challenge the leftist critique that artistic autonomy itself entails a socio-political agenda. Perhaps this explains Fisher's account of Hindemith's attempt to achieve a modus vivendi with the Nazis, which includes the obligatory citations from the Mathis libretto, but is disturbing for being offered (in stark contrast to his analyses of the Brecht and Benn collaborations) almost entirely without commentary, let alone critical evaluation.
Example B—APA Style:
This example 3 focuses on methodological questions and usefulness, and in this case the annotation notes that the article's usefulness is for instructors in Family Studies. An annotated bibliography written by a student will typically focus on the usefulness for the research s/he is either hypothetically or actually going to undertake. Once again, the analytical part of the entry is highlighted in bold text. The APA Publication Manual doesn't have any guidelines for annotated bibliographies, but their organization says that the following layout would fit well in a paper otherwise formatted in APA style. It is double-spaced, with hanging indents for the second line of the citation, a space between the citation and the annotation, and a block indented two more spaces for the annotation.
Thompson, L. (1992). Feminist methodology for family studies. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 3-18. Research methodology encompasses agenda, epistemology, ethics, and methods. Thompson illustrates each of these aspects of methodology with feminist examples from family studies. In so doing, she moves the literature of feminist research beyond the debate of qualitative versus quantitative methods. This article can be assigned to students regardless of whether they are using a feminist perspective in order to assist them in clarifying for themselves how they are addressing these aspects of methodology in their own research.
Example C—Chicago style:
The following excerpt from a student paper 4 annotates a primary source (the text of an original speech). This annotated bibliography was a preliminary step to a thesis researching the history of women and education. The bolded text in the second sentence indicates the writer's analysis of the rhetorical methods used in the primary source, and we can see in the final bolded sentence a suggestion of one of the themes ("the tactics and rhetoric employed by those opposed to equality in educational and professional opportunities") that she may go on to explore in her own thesis. There is a hanging indent after the first line of the citation, and the rest of the annotation continues on with the same hanging indent. Unlike MLA style, there is no double-spacing. Chicago Style has two systems of formatting the actual citation (but not the annotation), depending on whether you use notes (footnotes/endnotes) or the author-date system. Be sure to check the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style or the Learning Commons handout on Chicago referencing style to find out the differences. This example follows Chicago's "notes and bibliography" citation style.
Sedgewick, R. "The Proper Sphere and Influence of Women in Christian Society ." In The Proper Sphere: Woman's Place in Canadian Society, edited by R. Cook and W. Mitchinson, 8–34. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1976. This is the text of a November 1856 speech that Reverend Robert Sedgewick delivered at the Halifax YMCA. Focusing on the biblical debate that women are meant to be the help-meets of men, Sedgewick relies on ridicule, sarcasm and fear-mongering to argue that it is in the best interest of society to restrict women from courses of education that would take them outside of the home. This speech serves as an excellent example of the tactics and rhetoric employed by those opposed to equality in educational and professional opportunities.
Links to Web Resources on Annotated Bibliographies
• University of Toronto: Writing an Annotated Bibliography: http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/annotate...
• Purdue University Online Writing Lab: Annotated Bibliography Example: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/614/02/
1 C. R. Harington, ed., Annotated Bibliography of Quaternary Vertebrates of Northern North America: with Radiocarbon Dates (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 318–19.
2 Luttman, Stephen, Paul Hindemith: A Guide to Research (New York: Routledge, 2005).
3 Humble, Áine M., et al., "Feminism and Mentoring of Graduate Students," Family Relations 55 (January 2006): 2.