Monday, November 29, 2010

Bibliographies are So Not Boring

Bibliographies have been on my mind recently.  I don't mean like today and yesterday.  I mean more like the last few months.  I'm worried that I'm becoming obsessed with bibliographies.  I love bibliographies whether I find them in other books or when I create them myself.

One of the first things I do when I read a new historical book is to check the bibliography. I do this for two reasons: 1) to find further resources on the same subject (one of the best techniques when you are beginning research on a new topic) and 2) to judge the book by how good its bibliography is. I'm a harsh critic when an author has a weak bibliography.

When I start a new project one of the first things I do is to start a bibliography, right from the get-go.  Not only does it document the sources that I've used but it becomes a great reference to use again in the future.

As a house historian, I often create bibliographies for specific towns. It's sort of a natural progression from my canvassing a town exercise. This helps me to see everything about that town that is in publication.  I include maps in the bibliography as well. It's critical for me to try to understand what maps have been printed for an area and when.

But I also do bibliographies on specific people.  Even with house histories I will end up researching specific people, especially when they are fairly well-known.  Nothing helps more than understanding what has already been published about that person and what primary resources those authors used.  That saves me time and forces me to think creatively to unearth other possible resources.

Lately, as I've been wearing my macro glasses, I can see applying bibliographies to genealogical research as well.  Instead of just researching the specific documents related to my ancestors in Montgomery County, New York I could create a bibliography of publications related to the town they lived in.  I could also create a time specific bibliography covering say, 1800-1850, in New York generally.  By trying to learn more about the social history surrounding my ancestors at that time and perhaps learning about the associates who resided in the same town, I may finally unravel some of my unanswered questions about my own family history.  For this type of bibliography I think I would also try to hunt down as many journals and first-person accounts as possible.

I hope I've caused you to think twice about bibliographies.  They are not just an after-thought at the end of a book.  When thought out properly, a bibliography can guide your research and save you research time as well.  The next time you start a project, take the time to create a bibliography as you go and make it a dynamic part of your research experience.


  1. I'm with you on bibliographies. I used to give them a once-over, and gradually started looking at them with increasing care, even using them to figure out whether I am going to buy a book.

  2. I completely agree. Bibliographies are our friends! Thanks for the great post.

  3. Marian - thanks for writing this! You gave me something to think about re my own books and articles. I wrote a post about it this morning which I linked back to your article. Please see Bibliography or Footnotes?