As your PhD or research project evolves, so too must your literature review. As Charlotte Mathieson suggests in Writing a literature review, you can make things easier for yourself by keeping an annotated bibliography. Here is Charlotte’s guide to starting and maintaining an annotated bibliography.

LPG Plänitz, Planung einer Flurbereinigung

What is an annotated bibliography?

An annotated bibliography supplements titles and publication information with a few key details about each book. This is not intended to replace the more detailed notes that you make but provides a quick and easy reference point that compiles brief notes about all your sources in one place.

The more you read, the more you will find this an invaluable time-saving resource!

What does it include?

Each annotated bibliography entry should provide:

  • the usual bibliographic information about the text; write in the correct format for your referencing style as you go along – this will be extremely useful when you come to produce the final bibliography
  • A short paragraph of additional information about the material: what it covers, why it’s helpful, and a critical comment about the reading

Why is it useful?

Whilst it’s fairly easy to keep track of the main sources that you work with, as you progress through your research you’ll find you have hundreds of sources to keep track of. When you come to compile your literature review and to provide further references it is extremely helpful to have a comprehensive list of everything that you’ve read and referred to throughout your research.

You should aim to make an entry for everything that you read, even sources that you only refer to briefly.

This is especially helpful for:

  • keeping track of minor works that are only useful to provide supplementary information (for example, in footnotes) or will be compiled in your literature review
  • reminding you of anything that you might want to come back to later but don’t have time to take detailed notes about now
  • including works that you’ve identified as not relevant – a brief note about what the material includes will remind you why you discounted that source

For more important sources, there are many additional benefits, particularly in helping you develop techniques to:

  • summarise large amounts of information into a few sentences
  • identify the wider concerns and arguments of material, and other contexts or debates that it builds on
  • develop your critical thinking skills through analysis and critical response to the material
  • convey arguments succinctly and discerning the central thesis statement.

All of these skills are very useful for the critical synthesis required in writing your literature review.

The benefits of an annotated bibliography also extend beyond the PhD: when you start on new research, or return to a topic that you didn’t explore fully in the PhD thesis, your annotated bibliography is a useful starting point for finding resources.

How to organize and write the annotated bibliography

Arrange the entries alphabetically, as you would usually in a bibliography, or you may find another method – thematic groupings, chronological by material date, or in the order of your reading –more helpful.

When writing information, be selective about what you include and strike a balance between what is helpful for your particular project and what the book covers as a whole – remember that what is relevant to your project is likely to change over three years!

In your paragraph about the material you should include:

  • a summary of the overall argument or aim of the book
  • key details about the coverage of the material: dates covered, theoretical frameworks, texts discussed
  • selected details about the content: a chapter breakdown with a few key words about what each chapter covers
  • anything particular to your research topic that might be helpful at a later date

You might also make particular note of page numbers of any especially relevant sections within larger chapters to allow for quick access later.

Keywords are also helpful in organising an electronic document. Identify a set of key words related to your research and either include these in the body of each entry, or “tag” the entry with a list of keywords at the end. This helps to keep material succinctly presented and allows you to easily search the document if you are looking for sources on a particular theme (by using the “Find” function on Microsoft Word/ other writing programmes).

For edited collections of essay you might want to provide a separate entry for each essay.

Finally, keep it up to date! Remember to add every book you read, as you would with a bibliography – get into a habit of adding your latest reading every week. You might also want to update entries at a later date if you discover new useful material.

Image German Federal Archives, Wikicommons