What makes a good annotated bibliography?

Your major class research project for this semester is an annotated bibliography. An annotated bibliography is a comprehensive bibliography of the range of research on a subject, with brief descriptive annotations (i.e., summaries) of select readings. A researcher who consults an annotated bibliography should be able to define the central research interests and a variety of interpretations and theoretical perspectives within a relatively well-defined body of scholarship. A strong bibliography will identify the predominant interpretations of a particular research subject, outline critiques of the dominant perspective, suggest directions for current research, and provide bibliographic citations for subsequent researchers. An annotated bibliography is not really a unique interpretive work, in the sense that it does not need to say something no other scholar has said; instead, it should familiarize researchers with the full range of scholarship on a well-defined topic. From your perspective think of it as an opportunity to read and summarize the scholarly literature on a subject that fascinates you.


The topic that you focus on can be anything within anthropology that has produced a relatively large body of literature. In general, you want a broad topic, rather than a highly specific one. But at the same time, you also do not want to choose too broadly.

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You will be expected to use campus resources as much as possible but you are also encouraged to find resources off campus as well. It will not be possible to write the paper by spending a few evenings on Google, even though Google Scholar is an outstanding online resource; your work with electronic resources will need to go beyond simple search engines. The region has strong academic libraries that you can use either in person or via interlibrary loan.


You must have your subject approved before immersing yourself too deeply in the research. My suggestion:  pick a topic you are passionate about or have always wanted to research; do a quick search to get a general idea of the sources that exist and are accessible to you. Then email or hand in a paragraph describing your topic and strategy or just propose it verbally in person. I can assist you in broadening or narrowing your topic if necessary. I will not accept any annotated bibliography at the semester’s end that is on a subject that has not been previously approved. The completed bibliography is due to me on or before April 11. Email me if you have any questions.


What makes a good annotated bibliography?


  • A strong bibliography has a well-defined subject that is neither too broadly defined (e.g., globalization, North American archaeology, refugees, capitalism) nor too narrowly defined (e.g., impacts of globalization on Indianapolis—a good research subject, but it probably lacks many scholarships right now, probably not enough relevant sources available; acculturation of Congolese asylees in Indianapolis—again, a great topic but presently lacking in scholarship). Find a topic that includes a reasonably rich scholarship with a fair number of publications. Potential good examples: Rock Art (survey of petroglyphs, pictographs on rocks, and cave paintings), archaeological analysis of blood proteins found on Clovis points, newly discovered species of hominins, gibbons, etc. But these are just examples; choose something that really interests you.
  • An interesting topic matters a lot. Don’t choose a topic just because it has a long scholarly record, choose it because the research itself is interesting to you. If the subject bores you then find something else.
  • The literature should include a fair amount of recent scholarship. Weak bibliographies are often filled with sources more than 20 or 30 years old; a few of those classic resources are great, but there should be a rich and active scholarship right now.
  • A wide range of resources is always most powerful. Include peer-reviewed journals and scholarly monographs that represent a broad range of anthropological scholarship and interdisciplinary work. For instance, don’t take everything from American Anthropologist, even though it is one of the discipline’s most important resources. If appropriate, include popular texts or web pages, but use them judiciously. Do not make articles from Time, The Indianapolis Star, Yahoo, or some stranger’s blog the heart of your study or you will not earn a strong grade. One of the points of the project is to display your resourcefulness in conducting research, and a broad range of resources shows that you can use multiple library and online resources.
  • Thorough annotations are always better than sketchy annotations. A thorough annotation outlines the research questions as the author defines them (probably in the abstract if it’s a journal article, and likely in the introduction in a text-length study), clearly indicates the research method and data, and indicates the author’s conclusions. The annotation should always say how this source fits within the broader scholarship on your topic. See the passage on annotations below for more detail on how to write an annotation.
  • Follow grammar and style guidelines scrupulously (the details are included below). Spelling errors, sloppy grammar, and incomplete bibliographic citations will penalize the study. I can only grade the product, not the process of working hard on a bibliography, and if the product does not reflect all your hard work you will not receive the grade you deserve.


Non-negotiable realities


I will grade this paper strictly for its length, content, adherence to style guidelines, diversity of resources, and spelling and grammar. The style guidelines outline how to prepare the final text. The annotation guidelines provide directions for how to gather a sufficient quantity of resources and prepare the annotations. Please review these guidelines closely and adhere to them during the production of your bibliography. I am happy to read partial drafts and answer any questions you have during the preparation of the bibliography.




Include a brief summary of your topic at the outset of the paper. This should be at least one full page that briefly introduces the research subject, notes major interpretive foci within that work, outlines the state of research in the subject today and focuses on how this research is part of contemporary anthropology. It should be in your own words. You will be expected to make a clear statement in this opening topic summary of precisely how your subject can be appropriately considered an anthropological topic:  bibliography introductions that do not place your paper within anthropology will be significantly penalized, but at the same time I have a reasonably broadly defined sense of what constitutes anthropological scholarship, so talk to me if you’re having some problems clearly conceptualizing how your interests can be construed as anthropological. The summary should be followed by bibliographic entries for every resource identified during your research. Every pertinent resource should be included. You do not need to include a concluding section of the paper after the annotations.




Annotations are in part, capsule summaries that usually are about a paragraph or two paragraphs in length. These should be in your own words. Try to summarize the source in one sentence in your own words. Cover the four points below in your own words. You should make yourself familiar enough with each source to do this in your own words. You are writing for yourself and for readers who want to do research on your topic. The point is to tell them briefly what they should expect from your source, not to rewrite the entire source. A scholar should be able to read through your annotations briefly and be able to make a decision about that whether or not they want to seek out the source. You should annotate a wide range of sources, particularly scholarly books, and refereed journals, but also dissertations, unpublished literature (e.g., contract archaeology reports), conference papers, popular texts, and websites, among other sources. Annotations do not need to be either critical or laudatory in tone; instead, they should aim to provide a clear and clinical description that would provide a subsequent researcher enough information to determine if that source is relevant to their own work. Good annotations minimally must include:


  1. A full bibliographic citation, preferably using the American Anthropologist referencing system and style guidelines that follow or other reputable referencing systems and style guidelines. It must be possible for me to locate the source using your reference. You do not need to supply library data information, such as a Library of Congress catalog number or the specific collection in which you found this item. Any website references must have a complete URL address and be accessible at the time your paper is completed. References to listservs (i.e., email bulletin boards that post messages on a particular topic to subscribing members) should provide the URL to the group archives and specify the date(s) of communication(s) that you cite.
  2. Purpose of the study: For each annotated resource, what was the research question? Why was this question being examined? Most scholarly researchers will pose their subject as a hypothesis or outline it in an abstract, but a few will force you to wade through the text to piece it together yourself. Non-academic writers often do not have a research question per se; instead, they have some subject focus that you should note with as much specificity as possible.
  3. Methodology: How was the research conducted? Exactly what was the data used to examine the question identified above? If your subject was say, body art and the author was angling his or her text to a popular audience, the writer’s “methodology” might be visits to tattoo shops, discussions with folks with body adornment, illustrations of stylistic examples, descriptive-based on an unspecified number of visits to parlors and consumers, and so on. Some popular texts, websites, and so on simply will not have a methodology beyond their own reflective musings, but academic literature always will.
  4. Results: What did they find out? What in this interpretation, if anything, changed previous thinking on the topic? If the researchers stated hypotheses, were these borne out? So the researchers specify directions for future research on the subject? How useful was this reference?


When appropriate, you should note when articles are highly specialized or jargon-laden, identify authors who position their paper and research in relation to other researchers, note the general writing style of the piece, and comment on particularly unpersuasive or cogent interpretations. However, think of them more as summaries than as opinionated reviews. Good annotations can be anywhere from a paragraph to a page or so in length.


You may find citations for some resources that sound interesting, only to be unable to actually locate them during the semester. You should still provide citations for these resources, just don’t annotate them:  you do get some credit for finding the citation, even if the actual text eluded you, but if I can find the source using your citation this will reflect unfavorably on your research perseverance. You will be expected to have AT LEAST 12 fully annotated resources, in addition to unannotated bibliographic references. Good papers will have a considerable volume of citations including some sources that are unannotated, and others that are noted in one or two sentences—if a source is not particularly relevant or truly worthless, this can be said in a sentence or two to dismiss the study and indicate why it is not relevant (e.g., outdated, an un-refereed website with suspicious facts)–, and a few citations that are on related topics. Note references that you were unable to locate but have included because they sound relevant. The more references your paper has, the better—this is a project in which overkill is encouraged, so include a reference for everything that is relevant to the topic.


You can include no more than three internet resources. An “internet resource” means a web page, NOT a journal article accessed through a web archive (e.g. JSTOR). You may not use more than four of any one type of source. The length of the completed paper should be at the very barest minimum 3 pages; more likely you will need at least five to eight pages. There is no limit; if you have the time and desire to make it 20 pages, go for it.


There are several solid introductions to annotated bibliographies online that you can review. Some of these guides may use different style guides and you are welcome to use one besides those of American Anthropologist. Just choose one guideline and consistently stick with it. Remember that you will have to have at least 12 fully annotated resources, meaning at least a paragraph and perhaps as much as a page for each.

  • Cornell University Library How to Prepare an Annotated Bibliography
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison Annotated Bibliographies
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab Annotated Bibliography Guide
  • New College Writing Center Writing an Annotated Bibliography


Style guidelines


Style guides are inflexible rules for how to prepare a text and reference resources in a systematic format. There are many different style guides across disciplines, but the anthropological norm for bibliographic referencing is the American Anthropologist guide. You can use the guidelines below to prepare the paper itself.


I will grade scrupulously for your adherence to whatever style guidelines you choose. You are bound to find some odd resource that doesn’t fit any of the examples in the style guide, so please let me know if any details are unclear or you have resources that do not readily fit the rules.

  1. The paper must be double-spaced throughout the text, including citations and annotations.
  2. 1” margin on all sides—top, bottom, left, and right.
  3. Justify the document left (i.e., a jagged right edge like this web page); do not justify full, because the words often get spaced out in odd ways within sentences.
  4. 12-pitch font only; no extra big fonts, too-small-to-read fonts, or exceptionally aesthetic fonts that look pretty cool but are a drag to read.
  5. Staple completed papers in the upper left-hand corner.
  6. Number pages throughout at the bottom center of the page.
  7. Print on both sides of the paper if you wish.
  8. For internet resources, the bibliography must include a complete and accessible URL address. I should be able to look up and locate any site to which you refer.
  9. Spell-check the document AND proofread scrupulously for grammar errors: I will grade closely for spelling and grammar errors, so please have me, another student or an obsessive editor proofread before you turn in the final product.
  10. If I need to remind you or warn those who have yet to be ambushed by a computer glitch, PLEASE be sure to backup all your computer work: Remember that somehow computers know when your paper is due tomorrow, and armed with this information your motherboard decides this would be a good time to crash and delete your bibliography. You should always have a backup copy beyond simply saving it on your hard drive or a jump drive. I will be sympathetic if your disc crashes the day before the paper is due or if you are unable to get a printer in the computer lab that can read your disc, but I cannot grade the papers if they are not turned in by the deadline. Please back up your work and plan ahead so that you can deal with technological challenges and whatever else life may throw in your path at the semester’s end.
  11. Put your name on the paper. You would be surprised at the number of papers that get turned in without identification.


The Bottom Line


The completed paper is due to me on or before April 11. Please do not procrastinate, and do let me know if you have any questions about the paper’s preparation.













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