Spotlight on: Bibliographies

If you’ve ever found yourself slogging through screen after screen of keyword search results wondering whether there might be a more efficient way to launch a research project, consider giving subject bibliographies a try.

Bibliographies on the GC’s Reference Shelves

At their most basic, bibliographies are compilations of sources on a topic.  But they can be much more than that.

In the field of history, for example, they “are often a combination encyclopedia, bibliography, and guidebook [that] offer an overview of the literature that exists about a broad topic… and include references to standard texts. Sometimes they offer a how-to-do-research feature on the subject… as well as the locations of other secondary and major primary source collections.… Bibliographies can focus on a more specific subject, cover a more restrictive time frame, or attempt to be nearly comprehensive” (Presnell 36).

Thomas Mann details the usefulness of these venerable reference tools in The Oxford Guide to Library Research (4th edition), (169-174):

***Written by scholars immersed in their fields, subject bibliographies “often include nuggets that can be found only by serendipity, focused browsing, and persistent research over many years in obscure sources that may not be digitally accessible. And they may include types of materials … that lie in blind spots to the databases and websites.”

***Bibliographies frequently include annotations that evaluate sources to help researchers determine whether or not a title is relevant for a project.

***Indexed bibliographies can help researchers identify sources at the intersection of two subjects. “[S]imply look for a bibliography on the first subject… and then look for the second topic… in its index.” This is the very definition of analog Boolean searching.

To Mann’s recommendations, I’ll add the following:

Research is a creative activity. And browsing a subject bibliography on your topic may help you fine-tune your own scholarly focus on the sources in unexpected ways.

Reading through citations for monographs, journal articles, news stories, dissertations, manuscript collections, image collections, moving image collections, pamphlets, broadsides, ephemera, reports, data sets, government documents, etc., that might be included in a bibliography on your subject, will inspire you to think more deeply about your topic and engage your imagination in the search for sources.

Finding Bibliographies

A great way to discover bibliographies on a topic is to search the library catalog.

A basic Boolean keyword search formatted like “your topic” AND bibliography – for example, Keats AND bibliography – will turn up stand-alone subject bibliographies and works that contain multi-page bibliographies.

You can also find bibliographies with a Subject search on your topic.  Simply add the word “bibliography” as an additional Subject term.  For help identifying the Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) for your topic, consult the Library of Congress Authorities online.

See Mann for additional tips (175-186).

Online Bibliographies

The GC Library subscribes to a number of excellent bibliographic databases which will yield valuable sources for research projects in a wide range of subjects. These include:

Using Bibliographies

It’s wise to keep in mind that printed bibliographies are, by necessity, selective and include only works that fall within the parameters set by the scholar compiling the work.  And even those that strive for comprehensiveness can cover research only up to a certain date.

But you can still use older printed bibliographies to find the most recent scholarship on a topic.  Just search OneSearch, WorldCat, or a subject database to find an item recommended by a subject bibliography.  Then, click on the subject terms indexing that source to find similar items and sort your results from newest to oldest.

For additional information on finding and using bibliographies, see the Bibliographies page in our Beyond Wikipedia: Background & Reference Sources research guide.

And remember, when bibliographies identify sources not held by the GC Library, you may request them via Interlibrary Loan.

Bibliographies on the GC's Reference Shelves.

Bibliographies on the GC’s Reference Shelves.


Mann, Thomas. The Oxford Guide to Library Research. Fourth ed., 2015.

Presnell, Jenny L. The Information-Literate Historian: A Guide to Research for History Students. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2013.

Images:  Photos are by the author and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

About the Author

Donna Davey is an Adjunct Reference Librarian at the Graduate Center Library.