An annotated bibliography is a lot like the bibliography you would find at the end of your research paper or a book, but with more information.  Besides research paper assignments, you will find annotated bibliographies as part of a dissertation or thesis.  There are even published books that are extensive annotated bibliographies on a particular topic.

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

What is the purpose of an annotated bibliography, and how do you write a really great one? This post will teach you how to write a terrific annotated bibliography for your next research paper. |

This post is part of The Cafe Scholar’s Guide to Writing an Awesome Research Paper.  When you are finished working on your annotated bibliography, make sure to go back and check out the rest of the series!


What is the Purpose of an Annotated Bibliography?

What is the annotated bibliography used for and why do you need to create one? |

An annotated bibliography has a few different uses.  In a more extensive piece of academic writing, the annotated bibliography helps the reader who wants to dig deeper to find just the right source for his or her interest.  For the writer, the annotated bibliography will become a go-to resource to continue the research process.  This is true for anything from a shorter research paper to a full-length book.  You can refer back to the annotated bibliography to see what sources you found during the planning stage and why you thought they would be helpful, so you can have a better chance at finding the information you are looking for when you actually get down to writing.  Also, the process of writing an annotated bibliography will help you to evaluate your sources up front and make sure you are finding sources that will be useful for your paper before you get elbow-deep in writing.  This is really important.  What if you put all this work into writing a paper and then you realize there aren’t enough quality sources out there (or aren’t enough that meet your professor’s requirements, or aren’t enough in a language you can read…yes this has happened to me!)?  Since our mission is to study smarter, we obviously want to avoid wasting time like that.  The annotated bibliography will help you make sure you have what you need, so even if your professor doesn’t require one, you should create one anyways!

What Information Should you Include in your Annotated Bibliography?

What information do you need to include in your annotated bibliography? |

First, before you start working on your annotated bibliography, make sure to read any instructions provided by your professor, as he or she may have some specific requirements you need to satisfy.

Full Citation

First, you need to include the full citation for the source, properly formatted in the correct style for your discipline (such as Turabian/Chicago style, APA, MLA, etc.).  An app like Zotero can do this for you.

Classify the Source

You will want to categorize the source as a primary or secondary source.  This is especially important if your professor requires a certain number of primary sources for the assignment.  If you aren’t sure whether a source is a primary source or a secondary source, see my post about the difference between primary and secondary sources.  There are a few ways you can do this in your annotated bibliography.
Method one: You have a heading, “Primary Sources,” and list all of your primary sources, and do the same for the secondary sources.
Method Two: For each source in your annotated bibliography, state “primary source” right after the citation.
If your professor doesn’t state a preference, I prefer Method 2 because it is easier to do it this way if you are using a reference manager such as Zotero to create the annotated bibliography.  (I will share how to do this in a later post.)

Describe the Source

You will want to answer some questions, in a few sentences, to include the most important information about the source.   What type of source is it?  Is it a book, newspaper article, artifact, journal, etc?  Who is the author?  You already know the name from your citation above, but you want to identify anything about the author that will make this particular source helpful for your assignment.  For example, if the author was a black abolitionist preacher during the Civil War era, you are going to read the source differently than if it was written by a 20th-century historian.

Discuss the Importance or Usefulness of the Source

Evaluate the source: what is the usefulness of this source for this paper or project? |

Why is this source going to help you with this paper?  Does it provide a different perspective or a first-hand account of your research paper topic?  Is there a particular chapter or section that may prove useful for your paper?  Include this information here.

How Long Should the Annotation Be?

The annotation may vary from 1-2 sentences to a shorter paragraph, depending on the type of source and how much information is available.

Here is an example of a shorter annotation:

Essick, Abraham. “Franklin County: Diary of Abraham Essick (1849-1864; 1883; 1888).” Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 1998. Accessed February 25, 2017.
(Primary) This source is the diary of a Lutheran minister who preached before congregations all over the North, as well as in Winchester, Virginia.

And here is an example of a longer annotation:

McMath, Ann, and C. Stewart Doty. The Journal of Ann McMath: An Orphan in a New York Parsonage in the 1850s. Albany, N.Y.: Excelsior Editions, State University of New York Press, 2011. Accessed February 25, 2017.
(Primary) Ann McMath’s diaries chronicle her experience living in New York after it was “burned over” by religious enthusiasm. She was raised from the age of 14 in the home of her uncle, a preacher whose ministry reflected the values of the “Burned Over District.” McMath describes her conversion experience, reading habits, religious experiences, interactions with other religious traditions, and friendships with women such as Sarah and Mary Payne, who connected their religious beliefs with participation in abolition, feminist, and temperance movements. She also describes the involvement of her pastor uncle in both the abolition and temperance movements.

How Many Sources Should you Include?

How do you know how many sources to include in your annotated bibliography? |

If your professor does not specify the number of sources required for the annotated bibliography, then you want to aim for about 20% more than would be required or expected for the paper.  The reason is that there will always be sources that you thought you would use, but that didn’t work out in the long run.  If you include enough extra sources in the annotated bibliography, you won’t have to do as much extra research later to meet that minimum requirement if not all of your original sources work out.
Now you are ready to go write your annotated bibliography! Be sure to refer back to the post about finding good academic sources; the better sources you find, the easier it will be to write a great annotated bibliography and a great research paper.
I use this free worksheet to pull together all the information I need for an outstanding annotated bibliography.  |

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

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  1. Pinned this post to my college tip board. You have such good in-depth articles on how to do research papers and handle all that’s involved in being a college student. Good job!!

    • Thank you, Carrie!


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