How to Do a Critical Annotated Bibliography

Use a critical annotated bibliography to discover connections between the texts you read.
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Have you ever come across an idea while reading and thought, “I’ve read about that before, but where?” With the amount of information that people, especially students, have to sort through on a daily basis, it’s easy to forget exactly what material each book or article contains. A critical annotated bibliography is a great tool to keep track of information as you read, and it can also help you synthesize information from different sources.

1 Break It Down

A critical annotated bibliography does three things. First, it lists sources of information (the “bibliography” part). Second, it provides notes on those sources (the “annotated” part) -- around 100-200 words for each entry. And third, it shows that you’ve engaged with the source (the “critical” part); your notes should not only summarize the source, but also evaluate it and show how it relates to other sources on the same topic.

2 Gather Information

Whether you’re keeping a critical annotated bibliography of all the science fiction novels you’ve ever read or of postcolonial scholarship on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” you’ve got to figure out what’s going on the list. Head to the library, browse the Internet, and scour databases. Each time you come across a source that looks appropriate for your bibliography, try to spend a few hours with it so that you can analyze it carefully.

3 Cite Sources

Like all bibliographies, a critical annotated bibliography lists entries according to a certain format. This makes sure that anyone who uses it -- most importantly, you -- can easily find the sources listed. The most common citation styles are those of the Modern Language Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Chicago Manual of Style. If you’re creating the bibliography for a class, your instructor may ask you to use a specific style. Try to get the citation down on paper before you even start reading, in case you get interrupted and need to return to the source later.

4 Read and Summarize

As you read, watch, or even listen to your source, have paper or a computer at hand. Actively note down the main ideas and key terms as you go through, as well as any questions you might have. When you finish and the information is fresh in your mind, try to sum up the main points and the relationships between them in two to four sentences. In addition, include any major connections the author makes between his own work and that of other work in the field.

5 Critique

Once you’ve got your summary down, evaluate the text. Think about the author’s credibility: Does she establish expertise on the topic or cite others who do? Is the tone more objective or opinionated? What kind of audience is the source geared toward? Is it appropriate for your needs, or is it too general or technical? How about the text itself -- is it logically organized? Does it cover the topic adequately?

Return to any questions you noted down as you were reading. As you add more entries to your bibliography, you’ll be able to show how the texts on your topic converse with one another. One article might answer questions that another raises: a film might rework a main theme in a short story, or an editorial might explicitly disagree with a political speech. As you realize how earlier entries fit into the conversation, you can add notes to them.

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.