Are you ready to discover your college program?

Whether you are writing an annotated bibliography for a school assignment or to keep track of your research and writing, this guide will help you streamline the process.

Annotated bibliographies contain citations of written or visual works and brief descriptions of each. College students may be asked to write an annotated bibliography for a course or they may choose to prepare one on their own.

Learning how to write an annotated bibliography is a valuable skill that will benefit you beyond the classroom. This guide explores the annotated bibliography, including its format and purpose.

What Is an Annotated Bibliography?

An annotated bibliography is a list of citations and descriptions, often of scholarly works. Annotations are relatively short; they capture a text's key ideas and arguments. Some evaluate the source, while others are summaries; all include key information about the books, articles, or other materials they cover.

College students prepare annotated bibliographies while they conduct research, as do educators, scientists, and other types of researchers. In addition to providing brief notes on sources, an annotated bibliography demonstrates the amount of research the preparer has done on a topic.

An annotated bibliography may function as part of a larger project or as a stand-alone assignment. It adheres to citation styles, such as MLA, APA, and Chicago Style. What citation style you use depends on discipline, and each style has its own rules and characteristics.

How to Write an Annotated Bibliography: Step by Step

An annotated bibliography begins with research into a specific topic. The student finds books, articles, websites, and other materials pertinent to their research, then compiles those sources into a list. Whenever they identify a source, they assess it for content, relevance, accuracy, and usefulness.

Engagement with each source requires reading critically, identifying important information, and taking notes. If prepared well, an annotated bibliography will serve as a useful list of research materials that you can use as reference, and it will give you a broader understanding of the past and current research on your topic.

  1. Read Carefully: When identifying sources, read carefully to determine the texts' relevance and usefulness. While a quick glance at the source can provide insight, you need to look at the structure of the work, the arguments it puts forward, and what sources it cites to truly understand it. Once you understand the source, you can accurately note its contents and significance.
  2. Take Streamlined Notes: As you survey potential sources, decide on a strategy for recording pertinent information. For example, you might start with a book's introduction or by reading an abstract to learn the author's central argument quickly. Identifying essential information like this up front helps you keep clear, detailed notes that will be easy to interpret later. Long, unwieldy notations do not benefit annotated bibliographies (or you). Additionally, as you take notes, make use of abbreviations or symbols, start a new page for each source, and keep track of any questions that arise.
  3. Capture the Bibliographic Information: When writing an annotated bibliography, you will follow MLA, APA, or another required style while keeping track of the work's author, title, publisher, date of publication, etc. Keeping your list organized in this manner allows readers of your bibliography (and you) to find information easily.
  4. Offer Context, Then Content: Annotations in a bibliography should explore how the source fits within the framework of research that already exists, how it introduces new insight, and/or how it pushes the field in a new direction. Your annotated bibliography should also include brief mentions of any material or evidence the author uses to support their argument, alongside anything they omit or disregard.
  5. Evaluate the Source: Look for strengths and potential weaknesses while evaluating your sources. For example, determine if the source is well-researched or if there are gaps in argumentation. You should also flip to the work's endnotes and bibliography to check the author's sources. Finally, pay attention to any potential author biases as well as the timeliness, purpose, and intended audience of the work.
  6. Relate the Annotation to Your Research: Place your annotations in the context of your research focus, goals, and intent. Include strong sources, even if they do not fit into your preconceived notions or ideas. After all, acknowledging all sides of a topic is essential to ethical and thorough research practice.

How Do You Format an Annotated Bibliography?

Formatting for annotated bibliographies varies by style guide, with each guide offerings its own citation rules and formatting.

If you are constructing an annotated bibliography for a class, your instructor will tell you which style to use. The three main citation styles used are the Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA), and Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago) style guides.

The humanities use MLA, while education, psychology, and the sciences use APA. History, business, and the fine arts typically use Chicago Style. Engineering also has its own, unique style guide: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) style.

Each citation style includes its own guidelines for entries, order, and spacing. Below is an example of an annotated bibliography written in MLA style.

hooks, bell. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 2004.

With its title referencing Gwendolyn Brooks' 1959 poem about the pool players who "die soon," it's fitting that bell hook's slim book of ten essays not only critiques the social and cultural condition of Black men but also offers a path forward. According to hooks, it's a "misguided notion that ours is a culture that loves black men" (127).

hooks writes from a feminist perspective and draws upon the work of social activists, therapists, historians, film, literature, and literary critics. Based on this evidence, hooks urges the reader to look past stereotypes and understand the stakes and cost for all of us when we raise Black boys to "disassociate" from their "inner life" (95) or embrace the mores of white patriarchy.

She situates herself squarely in the fight, noting: "As a black woman who cares about the plight of black men, I feel I can no longer wait for brothers to take the lead and spread the word" (xiv). This word includes chapters on the education of Black men — institutional and otherwise — as well as questions of violence, sexuality, and Black male parenting and a concluding essay calling for an embrace of "real love" — the offering and acceptance of "reconciliation, renewal, and resurrection."

We Real Cool would be a valuable asset in my work, research, and writing on masculinity, violence, and prison reform.

What an Annotated Bibliography Is Not

What you include in an annotated bibliography is as important as what you omit. Make sure you have the required parts of the annotated bibliography and leave out irrelevant, superfluous, and unhelpful information.

Annotated bibliographies resemble works cited pages, bibliographies, abstracts, and literature reviews, but the content and purpose vary. Below, you'll find explanations of these differences.

Annotated Bibliography vs. Works Cited

A works cited - usually included at the end of a written project - includes only sources you directly reference in a written work. An annotated bibliography builds upon the information in a works cited, providing additional resources or more detail about resources. Students might want to create their works cited and annotated bibliography simultaneously while conducting research.

Annotated Bibliography vs. Bibliography

A bibliography includes all works that inform a project, paper, or assignment. The books, articles, and other sources included in a bibliography may or may not be cited directly in the assignment, but they have informed the work. Like a works-cited page, a bibliography includes basic source information and can serve as the foundation for an annotated version, but does not contain as much detail.

Annotated Bibliography vs. Literature Review

A literature ("lit") review offers an overview of research findings on a topic and is presented in narrative form, using full sentences and paragraphs. It serves as a background to your project, providing a critical evaluation and articulating gaps within the sources. A lit review also offers credibility to a paper or project by demonstrating an understanding of the larger field of study. You will use the information in your annotated bibliography to write the lit review.

Annotated Bibliography vs. Summary

A summary explains content and material, often omitting critical analysis or evaluation. A summary introduces a topic, explains main points, and sums up evidence. Information included in your summary must be cited.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Should Be Included in an Annotated Bibliography?

An annotated bibliography includes basic bibliographic information and brief descriptions of individual sources. Entries provide author, title, and publication information, with additional notes about the texts' arguments, content, and relatability to your research project.

Where Does an Annotated Bibliography Go in a Paper?

An annotated bibliography rarely appears in a paper or project. Instead, an annotated bibliography is largely for the use of the individual writing a paper or completing a project. In some instances, an annotated bibliography may stand alone as an assignment. In other cases, annotated bibliographies can be incorporated into a lit review or shortened into a basic bibliography or works-cited page.

Header Image Credit: Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images

Learn more, do more.

Popular with our students.

Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.

Take the next step toward your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

woman in an office