The Purpose of an Annotated Bibliography

The Purpose of an Annotated Bibliography

Literally, an annotated bibliography is a formal list of sources (hence the word “bibliography”) on a particular research topic that includes descriptive information about each source (this is what the word “annotated” means).

An annotated bibliography contains two basic types of information:

  • The first type is a formal documentation entry for each source a person collects, following a professional style for documenting and citing sources such as APA or MLA. The documentation entry that goes into an annotated bibliography is the same thing that goes on the a list of sources (e.g. a References or Works Cited page) in an academic paper.
  • The second type is an annotation, which, again, is provided for each source a person collects. Usually, each annotation includes a brief summary of the source. But often, it will also offer some other information, such as details about credibility of the source and an assessment of the source’s usefulness.


Khazan, Olga. “The Simple Psychological Trick to Political Persuasion.” The Atlantic, 1 Feb.


persuasion/515181/. Accessed 13 Feb. 2017.

In this article for The Atlantic, an internationally renown monthly magazine that publishes articles on social and cultural issues, staff writer Olga Khazan applies the concept of “moral frames” to explain why voters often seem recalcitrantly fixed in their political views. “Moral frames,” are patterns of thinking about and understanding ethical issues. Conservatives and liberals tend to hold different moral frames and find political arguments more persuasive if they appeal to the moral frames that they hold. For instance, since conservatives highly value patriotism, they are more likely to be persuaded by a political argument aligning a certain political view with being patriotic. This article provides some insights on how political activism can be done in a more productive and persuasive way.

An annotated bibliography will contain several entries like the one above, all based on sources found related to a specific research subject.

Why Write an Annotated Bibliography?

The above gives you some perspective on what goes in an annotated bibliography. But you might also wonder, “What is an annotated bibliography for? What good is it?”

The annotated bibliography is an academic genre, a specific kind of composition that is written for academic audiences, with specific content and a form that is meaningful for those academic audiences. It’s also a kind of writing you usually only see written by people in higher education, especially by professors/scholars and students.

When professors or scholars write annotated bibliographies, they often are doing so as a service to other people in their profession. Since scholars and professors are in jobs where they do intense amounts of research on all sorts of topics, they will often produce annotated bibliographies on the topics they have researched and share those annotated bibliographies with others in the profession. This helps save other professors and scholars the time and energy of having to research these topics from scratch if they intend to conduct research related to that topic or if they just want to be more informed about that topic. For instance, the following link takes you to the Bedford Bibliography of Research in Online Writing Instruction, in which a variety of contributors documented and annotated over 370 scholarly articles on the topic of online writing instruction published in the last 25 years.

When teachers ask students to write annotated bibliographies, though, they are doing it for different reasons:

  1. Having students write an annotated bibliography is an efficient way to make sure that a student has done sufficient research on a topic they are going to write about. If a professor receives an annotated bibliography from a student, she can quickly scan the bibliography, check the number of sources the student collected, and see if there are any sources listed that might lack credibility or might not provide the information the student actually needs.
  2. Also, an annotated bibliography helps a professor ascertain whether the student has actually read the sources. It would be relatively easy for a student to collect a list of sources or a pile of articles and show them to the professor. But to write an annotation on each one, the student actually has to read them.
  3. Finally, an annotated bibliography helps to show a professor whether a student has understood and appropriately evaluated each of the sources, which are critical skills for doing effective research.

Why Should I Write an Annotated Bibliography?

You should write the annotated bibliography for a variety of reasons:

  • It helps you evaluate the credibility and authority of your sources so that you can use the highest quality sources in your writing
  • To understand and be fully informed about a topic before making judgments and writing about it
  • To distinguish between your views and biases on a topic and what the research actually shows
  • To assess what research you’ve got so that you can figure out whether you need to go out and find more.

Evaluating Credibility and Being Better Informed

To write about any subject matter, a person needs to be informed about it. But in school, students all too often jump into the writing of their papers before they’ve done research. Then, only after writing whatever it is they can come up with on their own do they eventually add in some stuff from sources they were told to find, merely using those sources to prove or back up what they already wrote. The result of this is that some students write some really weak essays. They are weak because they begin writing the essay before they even knew very much about their topic. Moreover, they may only look at sources that convey perspectives they already agree with, never bothering to form a fresh perspective by listening to the voices coming from all sides of an issue. In short, the ideas and opinions they express in their essays end up being uninformed and uneducated.

By writing an annotated bibliography, you are taking time to select sources on their own merits, assessing their relevance and credibility on your topic, before you attempt to make use of them. Moreover, research should be used by students to become more genuinely knowledgeable about the subject matter they research. Not until one is more knowledgeable about their topic should they begin to develop a thesis, a perspective, on that topic to write about. Thus, writing an annotated bibliography is a way to ensure that you have become sufficiently knowledgeable about your topic before you try to write about it; it is a way to make sure you are writing from a stance of expertise on the subject matter, which is a much more authoritative and persuasive stance from which to write.

Distinguishing Between Our Own Opinion and Sources of Knowledge

Other times, students might do their research first, but they never take the time to separate their views and perspectives from those of the sources they are writing about. They may, then, confuse what ideas and information came from other sources and what came from their own experiences. As a result of this, students may distort what the original sources say or, worse, use information from other sources without giving proper credit to those sources (both of these things, if intentional, constitute acts of plagiarism! So you can see how serious this could be).

By writing an annotation on each source, you grow to understand each source on its own terms, taking stock of and judging what useful information and ideas it provides, and distinguishing the ideas, information, and perspectives expressed in those sources from those of your own. All this helps you to use those sources better and to properly give credit to the ideas, information, and perspectives that are not your own. It also helps you assess what information you may be missing so that you can go out and find more information if you need it.