How to Write an Annotated Bibliography

This paper offers guidelines to help students and scholars write a correct annotated bibliography focusing on its purposes and types, selection of the sources, content, format, and length.

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Definition of Annotated Bibliography

An annotated bibliography is a piece of academic writing in which the author provides a list of sources related to a specific research topic. The sources are arranged following a logical order, and each source is accompanied by a comment, usually consisting of a summary and an evaluation of the reference. Chronological and alphabetical orders are the most common organization schemes. An annotated bibliography can be part of a more complex paper or a stand-alone project, and it can serve different purposes. Depending on the topic, the listed sources can include books, articles from journals or newspapers, government publications, online materials, movies, documentaries, and audio files.

Purposes and Types of Annotated Bibliographies

An annotated bibliography can serve different scopes:

  • provide comprehensive list of literature on a specific topic
  • show a solid understanding of a subject
  • demonstrate that effective research has been conducted
  • gather useful sources that can be used for further research

Three types of annotated bibliographies include:

  • Descriptive
  • Informative
  • Critical

Descriptive Annotated Bibliography.

In this type of annotated bibliography, the writer describes the sources to explore whether the subject of the research has been correctly addressed and to what extent each source contributes to characterizing the topic. This kind of annotation provides the status quo concerning a particular subject of investigation. It is important to note that the descriptions do not include a critique or evaluation of the sources.

Informative Annotated Bibliography.

This annotation approach is more specific than the descriptive type. The author provides an overview of the contents of the sources, including initial hypothesis, research methodology, and findings. As in the previous case, the writer offers neither critical nor evaluative opinion on the sources. An informative annotated bibliography describes how researchers and scholars have handled a topic and outlines current findings and outcomes.

Critical Annotated Bibliography.

This type of annotation includes an analytical approach aimed at offering evaluative comments about the sources it contains. Strengths and limitations are described to determine whether a source addresses the topic adequately and if it is a relevant contribution to developing and deepening the understanding of a specific issue. A critical annotated bibliography offers an analytical overview of the current state of a specific research topic.
The type of annotated bibliography depends on the assignment and the instructions of the academic authority. Typically, educators assign critical annotated bibliographies and provide further details concerning format and style. Once the guidelines for the task are defined and understood, it is time to start writing. The first step involves selecting sources through a focused search that should follow specific criteria.

Selection of the Sources

Choosing sources is crucial as it affects the quality and weight of the bibliography. For example, if the topic is the biodiversity of Majella National Park in central Italy, the search should be narrowed to exclude tourist-oriented publications or research related to other Italian regions; the Abruzzese Apennines are very different from the Alps that surround northwest Italy’s Mont Blanc. Once the boundaries are set and the focus narrowed, specific strategies can help in finding coherent sources.

A first step involves consulting databases that contain scholarly articles on the subject of the research. For example, JSTOR and the NCSU Libraries offer some of the most comprehensive catalogs of credible academic articles. From the works thus identified, it is possible to trace other reliable sources by searching the references used by the authors of the pieces. A second helpful resource is Google Scholar, a public database that includes articles, books, and chapters of books. Moreover, Google Scholar offers a useful feature that allows searchers to consult a list of authors that have cited a specific piece of writing, broadening the search. In seeking appropriate sources, it can be helpful to consider the varied nature of available information. Besides books and articles, other potential resources include movies, audio interviews, photographic material, and cartographic materials as well as primary sources such as documents, personal letters, memos, and government publications. For example, a map might be helpful if the topic relates to the spontaneous orchids found in Majella National Park.

Content, Format, and Length

The content, format, and length of an annotated bibliography will vary according to the purpose and style of the project. As in other academic papers, a short introduction should offer an overview of the content and scope of the writing. For example, the writer should explain how the sources were selected or excluded, which databases have been searched, and the type of annotated bibliography involved: descriptive, informative, or critical. Each entry will consist of a bibliographic citation and related annotation. According to the instructions, any included quotes are to follow a specific formatting style such as MLA, APA, Chicago, or Harvard. Each annotation comprises a brief paragraph describing the source. The content depends on the type of annotated bibliography chosen. Does the source address the subject adequately? Does it offer a general approach or precise insights? Are the author and text credible? Does the source arouse any personal reaction? Each annotation should constitute three or five sentences; usually, the average length is around 110-150 words. In some cases, however, an annotation can extend to one or two pages.


An annotated bibliography is an academic paper aimed at providing an overview of the existing literature in a specific field of research. In some cases, it shows the mastery of a student or scholar in handling a particular subject. In other circumstances, it provides a basis for further research. The first essential step involves the selection of the sources, following strategies that result in identifying the most applicable texts, books, journals, or other documents. In terms of format, an introductory section defines the aim of the bibliography, explaining the criteria followed in choosing the sources, the nature of the annotations, and any relevant details. The literature is listed in alphabetical or chronological order and formatted according to MLA, APA, Chicago, or Harvard style as specified by the instructor. The annotation, usually around 110-150 words, is written in paragraph form and describes the source, assessing its relevance in the current research scenario and reflecting critical thinking. Finally, an annotated bibliography can be a stand-alone paper or part of a more substantial research project.

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