Your annotated bibliography is basically a listing of books with short summaries of their contents. There is no fixed limit or maximum for the number of books, nor is there a fixed limit or maximum for the length of the summaries. Here are some guidelines:
Decide on your Thesis
Come up with a thesis for your essay first. It does not have to be detailed or final at this point; it only needs to point you in the right direction. Keep in mind that it will probably change as you do research, and you may discover that your conclusion was incorrect. If you do discover that your thesis just won’t work, consider changing it rather than discarding it.
Here is an example of a possible thesis for this course:
The medieval Dutch introduction of large-scale water management occurred in a Feudal economy, which was local, scattered and small-scale, and thus did not lead to the formation of a centralized, bureaucratic empire
Number of Books and Articles
The number of books and articles you need is related to your thesis, broad theses require more sources, and narrow theses require fewer. Once you have decided on a thesis, make a list of several topics related to that thesis. Your topic list for our sample thesis would look something like this:
History of hydraulic engineering technology
Books and articles dealing with the technologies used in large-scale hydraulic engineering, you would be best off finding sources dealing with different time periods and places if possible.
A general history of Holland would be less desirable than one specific to the time period (e.g. the Medieval period)
The historical evidence for centralization and hydraulic engineering technology in the ancient civilizations
As hydraulic engineering was used for agriculture, a general history of agriculture in this period would be helpful.
There are a few general points to be made here. The first is that the topic list will help you to find books, but you will discover that many of these books will not be useful to you as they don’t directly discuss your topic. I personally suggest that you:
Spend a few hours on the internet searching for library books and articles about your subjects.
Spend a day in the library finding these books and skimming them before checking them out, rather than taking out one or two at a time, or taking out a ton of books at once
As I said, there are no set in stone guidelines for the number of books or articles you are required to use. I would expect you to look at 2-3 books and 1-2 articles for each subject. For a topic with more related subjects, I would expect more sources.
Using your Sources
Once you have a selection of books and articles that are relevant to your thesis, read them. While you read these sources, I would recommend that you:
Keep a statement of your thesis nearby, so you can remind yourself of what you are looking for.
Write down references from the book that relate to your thesis, in my example, any points that touch on the subject of agriculture, hydrological engineering or political structures. Bernal’s discussion of Feudalism would be a good example (p 210)
Writing the Summaries
The idea of an annotated bibliography is to produce a list of books with short summaries that make clear how these books are related to your thesis. You are not expected to summarize the entire book, only the main points that are relevant to your argument. Since you will already have a list of point form references from your readings, you can use these to construct short summaries for your books and articles. The length requirements for these summaries varies, here are some guidelines:
They should not be too long (2-3 paragraphs maximum), or too short (at least a paragraph)
The summary should be long enough to show me that you have read the book or the article
The source does not determine the length of the summary in any direct way, a short article may have more information relevant to your topic than a book, and a long book may have less relevant information than a short one.
The assignment is 10 double spaced pages long, at approximately 250 words a page, that’s 2500 words, for our example, with four subjects, that’s about two pages per subject. If each summary is 1-2 paragraphs long, that’s 3-6 summaries per subject.
JD Bernal, Science in History, Vol 1, MIT Press, 1971
Bernal’s book is a general history of science that uses the underlying economic and political circumstances of each time period to explain the direction and development of science. Starting with the ancient civilizations and going up to the end of the Medieval period, Bernal links key scientific developments (discoveries, institutions, ideas) to the demands created by the economic structures of society. For example, he argues that the spread of science followed the development of capitalism in early modern society.
This book will be useful as Bernal claims that the feudal economy was local, scattered and expanding, rather than centralizing. Medieval Europe lacked centralized government since the collapse of the Roman Empire, new agricultural technologies emphasized expansion rather than centralization, and Medieval hydraulic engineering was not tied to single, large floodplains as was the case in the ancient civilizations.
W TeBrake, “Taming the Waterwolf: Hydraulic Engineering and Water Management in the Netherlands during the Middle Ages”, Technology & Culture, Vol 43, N 3, July 2002
TeBrake’s article challenges the view that physical conditions in Medieval Holland were generally stable, by arguing for large scale land sublimation due to extensive hydrological engineering for agriculture. He outlines how small interventions to create farmland out of swamp led to greater flooding, and the need for more advanced, large-scale hydrological engineering. The Dutch ended up with a complex system for water management, using increasingly sophisticated technologies. This source will be useful as it shows how a complex, large scale technological system can exist outside of a large-scale, centralized government.
The Final Essay
I expect that you will use a good number of the sources in your annotated bibliography for your final paper, but there is no requirement for you to do this. You may find that the sources you used for your bibliography helped you to develop your thesis, but do not help you in your actual argument.
The point of this assignment is to get you reading for your essay earlier in the term, and to demonstrate to me that you have made a good faith attempt to read and understand a number of sources related to your topic. I fully expect that your thesis and your sources will change as you go along. In general, it is better to have a flawed thesis, start work early and change that thesis as you read the literature, than to spend half the term trying to come up with the ideal thesis, and waste weeks of writing and editing time.
You are not familiar with the literature, that’s why you are taking the course, so the chances of you coming up with a whiz-bang thesis without reading more of the literature are pretty slim. The annotated bibliography is a work in progress, but it will give you a head start on your essay, and it will help you to improve your thesis as you discover more about your subject.