An annotated bibliography contains a list of sources, with a paragraph summarising each source's content and purpose. Each source begins with a fully referenced citation, followed by the paragraph.
The 'annotation' refers to the paragraph, which aims to briefly summarise and evaluate the content of the source. The sources you select for your bibliography should focus on the same topic area.
The purpose of each annotation is to evaluate how well a particular source has addressed the topic area in its own way.
How long is the annotation?
For university assignments, 100-250 words per annotation is an average length. Sometimes annotations can be very brief with only one or two sentences. However, the assignment instructions usually specify the word limit for each annotation. If in doubt, check with your course coordinator or lecturer.
What information should I include in my annotation?
An annotation differs from an abstract, which presents an overall summary of the key issues, processes used and outcomes. You definitely need to include a summary of the key issues identified in your chosen source. However, you need to go beyond just a summary. Your annotation should provide an evaluation of the source. This evaluation can address the following five criteria:
- Focus: How is the topic approached within the source? Is this approach narrow or broad in scope? Is this a central source in the topic area or is it located on the periphery?
- Relevance: Is the source appropriate for its intended audience? Could any areas be improved? How well qualified is the author in the topic area? Is the author more or less qualified than others who have published in the field?
- Quality: Are the arguments logically presented? Do the arguments make sense? Is scholarly evidence used to support points? Are alternative perspectives acknowledged? Are topics covered in enough depth? Have opposing pieces of evidence been omitted? Does the information summarise what others have said or does it offer something new? Is the information based on primary data, originating in the topic's context (e.g. diary entries from soldiers in WWII or data collected by a researcher studying the topic); secondary data, based on reports which summarise events or others' research findings; or a combination?
- Accuracy: How recent is the source? Even if it is a recent source, published within the last 2 years, does it refer to recently published material? Can some of the ideas be supported by other sources you have read in the area?
- General structure and design: Are clear introductory and concluding sections provided within each chapter? Is there a glossary of terms or abbreviations used within the source? Is there an index? If so, is it comprehensive? Do chapter titles clearly identify the nature of the topic under study? Is the information divided into clearly identified sub-sections, which help with understanding the development of ideas?
A more detailed list of questions to ask when evaluating a source can be found at the page on critical reading.
How do I start?
Take time to select a topic that leads to enough sources. Narrow this down so that you achieve a variety of approaches to the topic and source types (books, chapters in edited books, journal articles). This variation should offer opportunities for comparison and evaluation. Once you have selected the number of sources required for your assignment, begin with the source you think is the most central. This will give you a broad overview of the key issues being debated within the selected topic.
Make notes in order to summarise the key points, keeping in mind the word limit. Use the five criteria (focus, relevance, quality, accuracy, and general structure and design) to establish the strengths and weaknesses about the source, as appropriate.
Continue this procedure with each source, noting where there are similarities and differences among sources. These comparisons provide the opportunities for establishing further evaluation as you proceed to annotate each source.
Who would find an annotated bibliography useful?
Interested readers may want to find out if it is worth reading a specific source within your chosen area. Your annotated bibliography will provide useful information for them to judge what sources would be most and least relevant. Others may find the information useful because it provides a broad overview of the level of debate presented within a topic area. Further, you may find that the annotated bibliography offers valuable information to develop a literature review or even an essay.