Rat Race: Bibliographies

When I started my PhD, I was urged by my supervisor, fellow students, and peers on twitter and elsewhere, to start to record my bibliography early and thoroughly. My supervisors showed me the myriad of box files on his office bookcases, neatly categorised and ordered, and encouraged me to create a similar system, advocating the usefulness, and indeed necessity of this level of organisation.

Amidst the whirl of first year, this one piece of advice was not one I stuck to very rigorously. I kept a list on word of all the books I had read and intended to read, but made no further notes about them. However, the key detail I had failed to take in was that I needed to keep an annotated bibliography. This is quite a different tool to the bibliographies I had produced as a matter of course through my undergraduate and MA work.

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As I progressed, I discovered that the large number and varied range of books and articles I was dealing with required not only listing for the benefit of examiners, but navigating for my benefit when researching and writing. There are many possible methods of keeping a record of your bibliography. In this post I will focus on the problems I experienced, and how I decided to try to resolve the issues I had. It became clear that I would need a number of additional elements in order to effectively manage and utilise my bibliography:

1) The ability to search – not only for titles or authors, but also for keywords.

2) Categorisation – each book/article needed to be classified in the same way I was structuring the thesis (in effect, creating separate bibliographies for each chapter).

3) Recording quotes – I wanted to be able to note down important quotes and their page numbers, again, in a way that was searchable.

4) Identify items which are not relevant – I wanted to able to keep a record of books and articles I had come across and decided would not be useful, in order to save time later.

While my supervisor’s paper-based method allows for points two, three and four, it would not enable searching or cross categorisation. While I could have simply kept my records on word, and used the find function, I decided that I wanted more flexibility. I therefore decided to try out electronic bibliographical software. I decided to try Zotero, as I use a Mac OS, and other software options were not compatible.

Using Zotero, I was able to categorise (chronologically, thematically, and in relation to my thesis structure), search, and record key additional details about each work. This information includes the argument of the book, a summary of the structure, page numbers of relevant quotes, and any points that relate specifically to my work (in effect, a short book review which summarises relevance to your project). There are some fantastic tips on creating an annotated bibliography on the University of Warwick website.

In summary, don’t leave creating your bibliography too late, and make the most of it. Catching up, especially when you already have over a hundred books to record (as I did!) is a long, tedious, and unnecessary task. Start as soon as possible, and use the exercise as another method of processing and digesting the information.

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