What is an annotated bibliography?

An annotated bibliography allows you to show your mastery and comprehension of a number of different types of sources relating to one specific subject.

The purpose of this sort of assignment is twofold: 1.) it allows you to master the basic format of bibliographies (which, for history papers, can be either in MLA or Chicago-style, depending on your professor's preference) and, more importantly, 2.) it encourages you to identify and engage a variety of sources on one specific subject.

Aside from asking you to list the bibliographical information of the various sources you have accessed, this type of assignment also asks you to briefly comment on the contents, argument, methodology, and overall usefulness of each source. Thus, an annotated bibliography offers a catalogue of commentary on significant sources relating to a particular topic. Such a catalogue can lay a useful foundation for a later research paper.

Your main challenge for this type of assignment is the reading: you are expected to familiarize yourself with (ideally, to read in their entirety) a large number of sources, and to comprehend the content and argument of each one. The finished bibliography will list each source (most likely, they will be listed alphabetically, by author's last name), and, following each listing, will comment on the contents.

Organizing your annotated bibliography

Alternatively, your annotated bibliography may be subdivided by type of source: in this case, you might list and comment on all the books you have read for the assignment in one section (organized alphabetically, by author's last name), then move on to another section in which you list and comment on all journal articles you have read on the subject (again organized alphabetically, by author's last name), then on to all contemporary newspaper articles, etc.

An excellent example of an annotated bibliography on various works relating to the 1960s can be found at http://www.public.iastate.edu/~rjackson/webbibl.html -- check it out!

To return to our decade, and to our "Events leading up to World War II"-theme, let us continue to pursue a topic touched upon in the Response Papers-section of this website, and imagine that your professor has assigned the topic "the isolationist movement in America." Imagine that, for your annotated bibliography, you are called upon to identify and comment upon two books, two journal articles, and two newspaper articles. Depending on your choice of (or the assigned) principle of organization, you might

The "bibliographic essay"

There is, finally, yet another way in which an annotated bibliography may be presented: as a bibliographical essay, i.e., as a piece of prose writing in which the listings and comments are integrated into a lengthier essay. Such is the case in a book-length annotated bibliography on isolationism by Justus D. Doenecke:

Doenecke, Justus D. The Literature of Isolationism: A Guide to Non-Interventionist Scholarship, 1930 - 1972. Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles, Publisher, 1972.

In his introduction, Doenecke defines his subject matter: "The term 'isolationist'-for purposes of this study-is quite restricted. It refers to those people and groups, during the years 1939 to 1941, who wanted a unilateral foreign policy...aimed primarily at avoiding conflict with Nazi Germany" (Doenecke 5).

The book is then sub-divided into chapters (such as "Movements and Leaders [among isolationists]") some of which are further subdivided into categories such as "A. Organizations: Isolationist and Pacifist"; "B. Senators"; "C. Congressmen"; and "D. Scholars, Publicists, and Other Opinion Leaders."

Under the last of the above-listed sub-headings, readers will find a paragraph on one of the most famous of isolationists, the aviator Charles Lindbergh, the once-celebrated man who first flew solo across the Atlantic in 1927 (for this feat, Lindbergh was known as "The Lone Eagle"). Lindbergh later fell into public disfavor for his isolationist policies during the late 1930s and early 1940s, especially for his leadership role in the controversial America First Committee, which many observers saw as an indication of his possible sympathies for Nazi Germany. (For American cartoons reviling Lindbergh's policies, see the Archives).

The section of Doenecke's book, reproduced below, exemplifies the basic method of an annotated bibliography (as does the entire book). In this case, the sources, because integrated into a larger bibliographical essay, are not listed alphabetically by author's last name:

Aviation's "Lone Eagle" is becoming subject to increasing study. Lowell C. Fleischer's thorough doctoral dissertation, "Charles A. Lindbergh and Isolationism, 1939-1941" (University of Connecticut, 1963), offers a closer examination of his secluded post war career than Kenneth S. Davis, The Hero: Charles A. Lindbergh and the American Dream (Garden City: Doubleday, 1959). Walter S. Ross, The Last Hero: Charles A. Lindbergh (New York: Harpers, 1968), adds little to the Davis account. One of the few analytical portraits of Lindbergh is offered by Paul Seabury in "Charles A. Lindbergh: The Politics of Nostalgia," History, II (1960), 123-144. Seabury finds Lindbergh a frontier individualist, yearning to preserve rural America from mechanical destruction. Seabury might find strong confirmation in The Wartime Journals of Charles Lindbergh (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), which are also revealing regarding his trips to Russia, England, and Germany, the activities of [the] America First [Committee], and his comments-particularly strong for one focused upon a Japanese "threat"-concerning American atrocities in the Pacific. Unfortunately, the journals are uneven, as he frequently refers almost offhandedly to conversations with other prominent Americans without any effort to summarize them. (Doenecke 37)

Notice how Doenecke describes a variety of sources - a doctoral dissertation, several books, an academic journal article, and a primary source: Lindbergh's own private journals, published posthumously-and how he briefly comments on each one's contents and merits.

In a different section, reproduced below, Doenecke engages the notion that the isolationist movement was in part motivated by anti-communism. Following the principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," some isolationists argued that because Hitler had declared war on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 (still before the United States' own entry into the war), the United States was better off not intervening against, nor antagonizing him, as he was fighting America's great ideological rival, communist Russia. In this section, Doenecke describes two sources that disagree on the extent to which such anti-communism may (or may not) have influenced the isolationist cause:

American hostility toward Bolshevism [Soviet communism] was a crucial factor in the isolationism of the 1930's. A mere glimpse of the Congressional and public debates described in Raymond H. Dawson, The Decision to Aid Russia, 1941: Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), shows how strongly the noninterventionists used the Russo-German war to support their pleas for aloofness. Frank Warren III's Liberals and Communism: The 'Red Decade' Revisited (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), finds little correlation between opposition to collective security and a militant anti-Russian posture. (22)

Doenecke's juxtaposition of two sources that disagree invites questions of historiography and offers an example of contradictory data and claims. At the same time, a careful reading of the paragraph indicates his own opinion on this matter: after all, if Doenecke himself did not agree with the notion (endorsed by Dawson's book, but challenged by Warren's) that "American hostility toward Bolshevism was a crucial factor in the isolationism of the 1930's," then surely he would not have begun the paragraph with this statement.

Based on just these two paragraphs from Doenecke's book, we begin to see the value of an annotated bibliography: it lists and comments upon the contents and merits of many sources relating to one larger topic. It points to ways in which these sources complement or contradict one another, thus highlighting disagreements within the historiography of the isolationist movement, and it points to "gaps" in the research, where more work needs to be done. (These gaps might suggest possible topics for research papers, who knows?)

For anyone writing a research paper on the isolationist movement of the 1930s, Doenecke's book (or, for anyone writing on the 1960s, the website listed earlier, above) are both important resources. Annotated bibliographies cut down on your research time by pointing you towards useful sources and steering you away from ones likely to yield little information. Writing an annotated bibliography of your own displays your mastery over several related sources that all pertain to one larger topic, and lays an important foundation for a possible research paper.