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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Publishing of Annotated Bibliographies: romises and Challenges for the 90's

Yan Hong Acting Head
Documents & Maps Department
Bailey/Howe Library
University of Vermont,
Burlington, Vermont, USA


This paper explores the necessity of publishing annotated bibliographies in this computer age of information explosion. A quick literature review in several disciplines indicate that, contrary to what one would think, annotated bibliographies are still written and published every year. In some fields, medicine, for example, the momentum is forever high. Based upon an analysis of the role and f unction of annotated bibliographies in the context of electronic access to information, and a discussion of the promises and challenges of writing and publishing these manuscripts, the author argues for the most effective ways to learn, retain and sharpen the writing skills in terms of selecting the appropriate topics, choosing the right audiences, and avoiding the pitfalls in preparing annotated bibliographies.



Not long ago, a colleague of mine said to me: "Publishing of annotated bibliographies will soon be like tonsil removal: a surgical procedure highly recommended in the 1960's, but considered out of place for today's patients." The librarian who thus predicted had a point to make: in this information age, some skills tend to lose their luster or validity due to technological advances and the creati on of new knowledge. Indeed, at a time when a simple key stroke could bring up scores and scores of relevant articles for a literature search, publishing of annotated bibliographies seems to be unnecessary, out of fashion, and even a waste of time. Why publish annotated bibliographies if library users can reap a bumper harvest on-line?

According to those with the same mind as that of my colleague, annotated bibliographies are passť, well on their way to joining dinosaurs which are alive and kicking only in the movie of Jurassic Park. They lament that the weight of on-line search capabilities, networking development and Internet popularity will easily crush the life of annotated bibliographies, leaving this age-old service a roa dkill on the information highway. A very logical prediction, isn't it.

History tells us that the impact of technological development can be as much overestimated as they are underestimated. To see change along the normal path of information dissemination is one thing; to predict the death of one particular transmission method is quite another. Anyone who jumps to conclusions about the doomed future of annotated bibliographies should think twice. In this paper, I int end to explore the necessity of publishing annotated bibliographies in this computer age of information explosion, to analyze the role and function of annotated bibliographies in the context of electronic access to information, and to discuss the promises and challenges of writing and publishing these manuscripts. Drawing upon my personal experiences in creating and repackaging knowledge for acad emic publishing, I'll argue for the most effective ways to learn, retain and sharpen the writing skills in terms of selecting the appropriate topics, choosing the right audiences, and avoiding the pitfalls in preparing annotated bibliographies.

A glimpse of today's annotated bibliographies

What is the real status of the publishing of annotated bibliographies? Are librarians washing their hands of annotated bibliographies the same way American librarians trash their card catalogs? Is annotated bibliography a dead horse already? A literature search on the topic will put our fingers on its pulse. Let's look at a group of figures of published annotated bibliographies in several discipl ines for the past 6 years with 1993 as a demarcation line. The time frame chosen for this comparison was based on the fact that 1993 is a turning point in terms of Internet popularity. That year, Gopher came into being and paved the way for other new Internet tools.

From 1993 to 1995, the GPO Monthly Catalog, a database that covers 380,000 records on all subjects of interest to the US government, published 42 annotated bibliographies, whereas during the period of 1990 to 1992, the number was 64. In another database, Library Literature copyrighted by the H.W. Wilson Company, the same key-word search of "annotated bibliography" brought up 76 records for the pa st 3 years, and 109 for 1990-1992. In Medline, the premier database for biomedicine worldwide, the number is even more telling: 49 annotated bibliographies for the last three years versus 32 for the period of 1990 to 1992. It is a 53% increase!!

Without a doubt, annotated bibliographies still crow. Their voices can be heard well beyond the land of librarianship. As the above-mentioned numbers indicate, enthusiasm for producing and using annotated bibliographies remains unchecked. Demand and supply are both high for annotated bibliographies. In short, the future of annotated bibliographies is not as dark as it is sometimes painted.

Need for annotated bibliographies

In the face of a rapid growth of new technologies like electronic databases, CD-ROMs, and Internet, why is publishing of annotated bibliographies still holding its ground? I see at least four reasons that account for its tenacity and longevity.

First, annotated bibliographies serve to represent a balance of viewpoints in the literature by covering articles that deal with various aspects of issues at hand. In the 90's, library users do not suffer from a lack of knowledge resources and general information. Take health care providers for example. The biggest challenge for them has always been finding case specificity (Curley. p. 235). Acco rding to Curley, a study of knowledge-seeking behavior by physicians involved in a clinical problem shows that, when looking for knowledge resources, physicians emphasize three qualities: extensiveness, relevance and credibility. Annotated bibliographies, it turns out, have these merits.

Good annotated bibliographies always provide comprehensive coverage of the issues studied. By definition, they are extensive and exhaustive in the treating of their topics. When exploring an issue, annotated bibliographies will look at the pros and cons of a subject matter. While computer search is fast and easy, it can be difficult to locate articles that favor one side of the issue. By reclassi fying literature based on its point of view, an annotated bibliography provides its readers with relevant information. Since annotated bibliographies are normally prepared either by subject specialists or people who have complete understanding of the structure and classification of the available resources on the subject, the quality of the product is guaranteed.

Second, annotated bibliographies save patrons' precious research time by providing a one-stop shop. When carefully organized and logically presented, they can be a very valuable service with their added value--evaluation and synthesizing of information. A computer database allows its users to access information, but an annotated bibliography does more than that: it reviews and synthesizes informa tion. Ask library users and we'll find that many of them suffer from information overload. There is too much to read. As Edward reminds us in his article "The Information Explosion," "The problem is twofold: the increase in the number of journals, and the scattering of needed information in more sources." (p. 647) Annotated bibliographies as a value-added package alleviate the problem for a resea rcher.

Third, annotated bibliographies provide easy access to important documents that were published either before the era of computer printouts or in journals that are not abstracted in the particular databases a patron uses. Computer searches, in most cases, are efficient and effective, but not for everything. Depending on the subject matter, computers may not be the best choice. When historians are doing some research in their field, we shouldn't be surprised if they scramble for annotated bibliographies in preference to electronic gadgets in the library.

Last, when we say computer searches are effective and efficient, we are assuming that the users really know what they are doing with their selection of databases, search strategies and controlled vocabularies. The sad fact, however, is that many novice users and incoming students lack the information literacy skills necessary for success in an academic environment and in subsequent careers. There are always those who are computer illiterate and who try to stay away from computer searches. Imagine how an annotated bibliography on their research topic would bring the sun out above their horizon! This is not to say that we as a profession should stop teaching them the computer skills. The point is that publishing of annotated bibliography serves a purpose and has every reason to continue an d flourish.

In addition to the previous four reasons that call for publishing of annotated bibliographies, we should do it for our professional development. For one thing, publishing helps establish our credibility in our chosen profession. MacPhail, author of "book reviews and the scholarly publisher" suggested that "the single best way to get started in publishing... is to write book reviews." (1990, p.57) For librarians, however, I would argue that the single best way to get started in publishing is to write annotated bibliographies.

Two factors come in handy for the argument: first, librarians have the expertise in literature searching. We know the information structure better than anyone else. What we lack in subject knowledge is compensated for by our mastery of the classification of the knowledge and our skills to ease in and out of the labyrinth. Thus, annotated bibliographies produced by librarians tend to have high qua lity and good use.

Secondly, although peer reviewed journals scrutinize annotated bibliographies quite seriously, standards for their publication generally are less rigorous and frequently at the discretion of the journal editor. Feedback provided by the journal editor offers invaluable information to fledgling writers about improving writing style. This feedback also enables us to learn the publishing process and to make important contacts in publishing circles.

How to write annotated bibliographies

The need for publishing annotated bibliographies is real. Let's make no bones about that. But anyone who dresses them up as heavily courted princesses is only living in a fairy tale. In this computer age, no one should take annotated bibliographies for granted. To marry them off, so to speak, writers have to work much harder than before. Selection of topics should be painstakingly studied. Timing of publication should be meticulously calculated, and the audience targeted should be thoughtfully analyzed with the content tailored to their particular needs. In short, we should go the extra mile to ensure that a planned annotated bibliography serves the particular information needs of a particular group of people.

Raking together every published leaf on a topic does not make good annotated bibliographies. A good annotated bibliography has to present a clear purpose, appeal to the right audience and cover appropriate subject content. My research indicates that annotated bibliographies on both historical and current topics like environmental studies, disability issues and cultural diversity stand the best ch ance of being published.

Admittedly, conceiving, compiling, and organizing annotated bibliographies does not earn the respect it deserves in academia. Many assume that editing and abstracting journals are not particularly difficult. In fact, organizing an annotated bibliography can be more challenging than writing an original piece on the same subject.

First, we have to be original in identifying a subject. This is the most difficult part because it puts to test both our grasp of the publishing situation in general and our subject knowledge in particular. Needed is a literature search of the scholarship in the selected discipline to define questions and identify a topic that warrants an annotated bibliography. The subject has to be worth doing on one hand, and manageable on the other.

An original topic should be followed by appropriate scope of content coverage and time frame. How comprehensive do we want it to be, and how far back do we want to go for the literature search? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves. And they can only be answered upon a sound analysis of the audience the annotated bibliography is intended to.

For more specific tips on how to prepare an annotated bibliography, Bloch (1994, p. 101-104) recommends that we start with "secondary literature," that is, reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, guides, theses, etc. After this, according to the author, large international databases should be consulted through a system of key words or themes. This is necessary because a well-conducte d and well-organized literature search will save a considerable amount of time when it comes to writing the manuscript. As an important finishing touch in his article, the author draws our attention to the fact that "organization is the cornerstone of an effective literature search." He encourages writers to contact specific organizations for their subject.


Users need annotated bibliographies for their research project for a variety of reasons, and librarians have the responsibility to publish them to meet the users's need and advance the librarians' professionalism. A good annotated bibliography stands out for its clear purpose and subject coverage. While historical topics are best for this task in terms of computer printout availability, hot, curr ent issues also make good topics for an annotated bibliography. Librarians have the responsibility to keep the services of annotated bibliography both alive and meaningful.


Bloch, Eric. 1994. Introduction to documentation procedures in medical science: how to establish a bibliography? Sante. 4(2):101-4.

Curley, Shawn., Connelly, Donald, Rich, Eugene. "Physicians' Use of Medical Knowledge resources: preliminary theoretical framework and findings." Medical Decision Making. 10(4): 231-41, 1990.

Huth, Edward J. "The Information explosion." Bulletin of the New York Academy of Sciences 65(July 1989):647-61.

MacPhail, B.D. 1980. Book reviews and the scholarly publisher. Scholarly Publishing. 12(1):55-63.