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.
Q: Suppose I can’t determine the author of a source, should I just cite "Anonymous"?
A: This is an outmoded practice. If no author is listed but an affiliated organization is given, consider the name of that organization to be the source, both in-text and on the references page.
Q: What if I can’t find either author or year? May I cite the source in-text just by its title?
A: Typically, yes. Supply the title (or a shortened form of it) in-text in quotation marks, then give fuller bibliographic information on the references page.
Q: When citing web sources, should I give the URL within the text itself?
A: No—this is non-standard and, frankly, comes off as pretty lame. Provide the URL on the references page, but handle the in-text citation as you would any other, providing author-year or source number. Unless the nature of the source as being web-based is highly relevant to context, the reader in the act of reading should be virtually unaware (no pun intended) that you are using a web source. Never attempt an in-text citation with something as informal and downright silly as "According to the internet . . ."
Q: Suppose a web page has nothing but a title on it, and I have no idea who authored it?
A: Then you would provide only that information available, in particular the URL and the date accessed, on your references page. As always, be sure to carefully assess the page’s quality and credibility too.
Q: What about information obtained verbally from a credible source?
A: In-text, handle the citation as you normally would, giving author-year or source number; on the references page, follow the person’s name with his or her title or affiliation (you could even supply the party’s mailing address), then the words "personal communication."
Q: What if I’m citing e-mail, or a newsgroup, or a gopher site, or a CD-ROM? How do I handle this on the references page?
A: For such specialized concerns, you need to consult a more specific style guide. Online, I can recommend online! a reference guide to using internet sources.
Q: I’m trying to return to a page I visited last week, and I get error messages. How do I find it?
A: After rechecking your typing, try truncating a portion of the URL. Cutting off the end of the address frequently takes you back to the page’s author and you can try relocating from there. Of course, the page might indeed be gone, entirely eliminated from cyberspace.
Q: How important is a small detail such as punctuation on my references page?
A: Consistency within your document is what matters. Professors rarely deduct points over such small issues, but they do expect you to pay close attention to them and be consistent in your practices.
Q: Suppose I’m citing an author who cited someone else? Do I cite the original author or just the one I read?
A: You should only formally cite the author that you actually read, although a narrative mention of the other source within an in-text sentence is often appropriate. For example: "Kunkle (2001) reports that a 1998 study by Edmund Eberly revealed . . ." Of course, if time permits and the circumstances suggest you should, you might try to track down the original source and interpret it for yourself.
Q: Are footnotes "in" or "out"?
A: They’re definitely "out." Try to avoid them. Journals rarely use them, preferring an endnotes page with explanatory notes at the end of the text. Even this practice is rare except in scholarly works, where the author chooses to offer explanatory side discussions.
Q: What’s the difference between a references page and a bibliography?
A: A references page contains only those references that were directly cited in the text. A bibliography page is more of a reading list—it contains references referred to in the text plus the chief publications that you consulted in a general way. Some people—even some professors—use the two terms loosely and interchangeably, but journals tend to follow the distinction I just provided.
Q: What if I can’t find a source in the library, but the computer tells me it’s on the shelves?
A: Ask a librarian (this answer applies to questions I haven’t listed here as well). My experience is that most librarians are terribly helpful and kind to serious, respectful students.
Q: I’m old-fashioned and I still believe in books, so can you recommend some print resources to answer specific questions about citing web sources?
A: Good for you. I highly recommend Electronic Style: A Guide to Citing Electronic Information, by Xia Li and Nancy B. Crane. Also, the most modern library editions of major style guides (The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing; The Chicago Manual of Style) have thorough information and discussion on citing web sources.