Writing about Literature

The Research Essay

The Research Process

Creating a Working Bibliography

A working bibliography lists all the sources that you might use in your research essay. It is a "working" document in two ways. For one thing, it will change throughout the research process—expanding each time you add a potentially useful source and contracting when you omit sources that turn out to be less relevant than you anticipated. Also, once you have written your essay, your working bibliography will evolve one last time, becoming your list of works cited. For another thing, you can use your bibliography to organize and keep track of your research "work." To this end, some researchers divide the bibliography into three parts: (1) sources that they need to locate, (2) sources that they have located and think they will use, and (3) sources that they have located but think they probably won’t use. (Keeping track of "rejects" ensures, first, that you won’t have to start from scratch if you later change your mind; second, that you won’t forget that you’ve already located and rejected a source if you come across another reference to it.)

Because you will need to update your bibliography regularly and because it will ultimately become the kernel of your list of works cited, you should consider using a computer. In that case, you’ll need to print a copy or take your laptop along each time you head to the library. However, some researchers find it helpful to also or instead use notecards, creating a separate card for each source. You can then physically separate cards dedicated to sources to be located, sources already located, and "rejected" sources. Just in case your cards get mixed up, however, you should also always note the status of the source on the card (by writing at the top "find," "located," or "rejected").

Regardless of the format you use, your record for each source should include all the information you will need in order both to locate the source and to cite it in your essay. Helpful location information might include the library in which it’s found (if you’re using multiple libraries), the section of the library in which it’s held (e.g., "Reference," "Stacks"), and its call number. As for citation or publication information, it’s tempting to ignore this until the very end of the writing process, and some writers do. But if you give in to that temptation, you will, at best, create much more work for yourself down the road. At worst, you’ll find yourself unable to use a great source in your essay because you can’t relocate the necessary information about it. To avoid these fates, note down all facts you will need for a works cited entry (see The List of Works Cited). Finally, consider noting where you first discovered each source, just in case you later need to double-check citation information or to remind yourself why you considered a source potentially useful or authoritative. (Though you can use abbreviations, make sure they’re ones you’ll recognize later.)

Here are two sample entries from the working bibliography of a student researching Adrienne Rich’s poetry. Each entry includes all the required citation information, as well as notes on where the student discovered the source and where it is located.

Sample Working Bibliography Entries

Boyers, Robert. “On Adrienne Rich: Intelligence and Will.” Salmagundi 22–23
      (Spring– Summer 1973): 132–48. Print. Source: DLB 5. Loc.: UNLV LASR AS30. S33

Martin, Wendy. American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne
. U of North Carolina P, 1984. Print. Source: LRC/CLC. UNLV Stacks PS310.F45 M3 1984

Once you locate a source, double-check the accuracy and thoroughness of your citation information and update your working bibliography. (Notice, for example, that this student will need to check American Triptych to find out the city where it was published and then add this information to her bibliography.)

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