Annotated Bibliographies and Literature Reviews

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the structure and value of an annotated bibliography

Annotated Bibliographies

Text describing that an annotated bibliography consists of the bibliographic information, plus annotations, or notes explaining what the writer learned from the source.

Figure 1. Annotated bibliographies are helpful when finding sources and determining how that source might be helpful for your paper.

An annotated bibliography is a list of all your sources, including full citation information and notes on how you will use the sources. Writers often create annotated bibliographies as a part of a research project, as a means of recording their thoughts and deciding which sources to actually use to support the purpose of their research. Some writers include annotated bibliographies at the end of a research paper as a way of offering their insights about the sources’ usability to their readers.

College instructors often assign annotated bibliographies as a way to help students think through their sources’ quality and appropriateness to their research question or topic. Although it may take a while to complete the annotated bibliography, the annotations themselves are relatively brief.

Link to Learning

You can see a sample annotated bibliography from a student if you have not completed an annotated bibliography in the past.

Why Annotated Bibliographies?

Annotated bibliographies are useful for several reasons. If you keep one while you research, the annotated bibliography will function as a useful guide. It will be easier for you to revisit sources later because you will already have notes explaining how you want to use each source. If you find an annotated bibliography attached to one of the sources you are using, you can look at it to find other possible resources.

Constructing Your Citations

The first part of each entry in an annotated bibliography is the source’s full citation. We examine citations in another section of this course, and detailed instructions for creating the citation can be found in the style manual for whatever format (APA, MLA, etc.) your professor wants you to use.

What to Include in Each Annotation

A good annotation has three parts, in addition to the complete bibliographic information for the source:

  1. a brief summary of the source,
  2. a critique and evaluation of credibility, and
  3. an explanation of how you will use the source in your essay.

Start by stating the main idea of the source. If you have space, note the specific information that you want to use from the source, such as quotations, chapters, or page numbers. Then explain if the source is credible, and note any potential bias you observe. Finally, explain how that information is useful to your own work.

You may also consider including the following information:

  • an explanation about the authority and/or qualifications of the author
  • the main purpose of the work
  • any detectable bias or interpretive stance
  • the intended audience and level of reading

Writing the Annotated bibliography

Keep these suggestions in mind as you construct an annotated bibliography:

  1. a relatively narrow focus: a relatively narrow research question or a working thesis sentence with a clear angle
  2. select the sources most related: skim the sources first; then more carefully read those that seem useful to your research focus.
  3. summarize the source: reproduce the author’s main ideas in your own words. Be careful to change the wording and the structure as you put the information from the source into your own words.
  4. analyze the source: ask yourself questions. Is there enough relevant information to address my narrow focus? Does the author delve deeply into the subject as opposed to offering a general overview? What type of evidence does the author use? Does the author use statistical information accurately, to the best of my knowledge?
  5. evaluate the source’s usefulness to the narrow focus of your research. Make connections between the source and your focus for your project.
  6. use the assigned bibliographic style (usually MLA or APA style) to create the bibliography entry that begins each annotated source on your list.

In most annotated bibliographies, the summary, analysis, and evaluation for each source becomes the body of the annotation for that source. Some annotated bibliographies may not require all three of these elements, but most will. Be sure to consult your instructor, and ask questions if you’re unsure about the required elements within each entry of your annotated bibliography.

Example Annotation

Source: Farley, John. “The Spontaneous-Generation Controversy (1700–1860): The Origin of Parasitic Worms.” Journal of the History of Biology, 5 (Spring 1972), 95–125.

  • Notes: This essay discusses the conversation about spontaneous generation that was taking place around the time that Frankenstein was written. In addition, it introduces a distinction between abiogenesis and heterogenesis. The author argues that the accounts of spontaneous generation from this time period were often based on incorrect assumptions: that the discussion was focused primarily on micro-organisms, and that spontaneous-generation theories were disproved by experiments. The author takes a scientific approach to evaluating theories of spontaneous generation, and the presentation of his argument is supported with sources. It is a reliable and credible source. The essay will be helpful in forming a picture of the early 19th-century conversation about how life is formed, as well as explaining the critical perception of spontaneous-generation theories during the 19th century.

Try It

Literature Review

The literature of a literature review is not made up of novels and short stories and poetry—but is the collection of writing and research that has been produced on a particular topic.

The purpose of the literature review is to give you an overview of a particular topic. Your job is to discover the research that has already been done, the major perspectives, and the significant thinkers and writers (experts) who have published on the topic you’re interested in. In other words, it’s a survey of what has been written and argued about your topic.

By the time you complete your literature review you should have written an essay that demonstrates that you:

  • Understand the history of what’s been written and researched on your topic.
  • Know the significance of the current academic thinking on your topic, including what the controversies are.
  • Have a perspective about what work remains to be done on your topic.

Thus, a literature review synthesizes your research into an explanation of what is known and what is not known on your topic. If the topic is one from which you want to embark on a major research project, doing a literature review will save you time and help you figure out where you might focus your attention so you don’t duplicate research that has already been done.

Just to be clear: a literature review differs from a research paper in that a literature review is a summary and synthesis of the major arguments and thinking of experts on the topic you’re investigating, whereas a research paper supports a position or an opinion you have developed yourself as a result of your own analysis of a topic.

Another advantage of doing a literature review is that it summarizes the intellectual discussion that has been going on over the decades—or centuries—on a specific topic and allows you to join in that conversation (what academics call academic discourse) from a knowledgeable position.

The following presentation will provide you with the basic steps to follow as you work to complete a literature review.

Literature Reviews


annotated bibliography: a list of your sources for your research, including full citation information and notes on how you will use the sources

literature review: a summary and synthesis of the major arguments and thinking of experts on the topic you’re investigating