Finding your materials, part 9:
.........Assess your bibliography

Assess your bibliography to be sure that it's balanced and has a wide enough range of sources. And remember that an experienced reader will look at your bibliography before reading your paper--just as you yourself did when assessing books for their possible value to your project.

Here is a list of things to consider when assessing your bibliography:

  • Number of sources. Your professor will guide you on the required length of your bibliography, but as a rule of thumb figure that for a carefully researched 15-20 page paper at least about 10-15 sources will be appropriate. For a five-page paper, five sources will be appropriate. Remember that these are sources you actually use in your paper.

  • Range of materials. Be sure that you've searched broadly enough. For example, if you're working with some aspect of Minoan art, your bibliography would be too narrow if you listed 10 works, all of which had some variation of "The Art of Crete" as their titles.

    Depending on your paper topic, you might want to broaden your bibliography by adding a works on (for example) symbolism, religion / mythology, architecture, biography, methods of making works of art, methods of archaeology, and also one or more sources on the culture of the period you're exploring.
  • Dates. Be aware of when your sources were published, and balance good older sources with more recent ones to be sure that your information isn't out of date. Remember that the information in most books will be "current" about 10 years before the date of publication--for more recent books this time will be less. For example, a book published in 1975 will probably be current for information that was cutting edge in 1965. Reason: It takes time to write and publish a book. This is where recent journal articles can be very helpful: as your project solidifies, you can use a focused database search with a limited date range to check out the most recent info on various topics.

  • In general, you should AVOID encyclopedia articles in select (or selected) bibliography of your completed paper [See below for definition of "select bibliography."]. Encyclopedia articles are fine to consult for an overview, and to use for "snowballing." However, including in the bibliography of your completed paper articles (for example) from the Encyclopedia Britannica or Oxford Art Online is a red flag that you've been lazy in your research. There are exceptions to this rule, for example, the very useful Dictionary of the History of Ideas, which contains articles by leading experts in their fields.

  • Some tempting Internet resources that are fine for getting an overview and for snowballing, but inappropriate for a term paper. Sites such as smarthistory, Khan Academy, and the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History are excellent for getting an overview, deepening your understanding of works discussed in class--and for "snowballing," but are NOT appropriate for a term paper bibliography. As is true of encyclopedia articles, they are a STARTING POINT, not a final destination. Except in unusual circumstances--such as a study of the methods of online art history overviews--to use these as major sources for your paper is (like the use of encyclopedia articles) a red flag that you've been lazy in your research.
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  • Internet sources. Be sure that you evaluate Internet sources carefully for reliability. Some are excellent; many are unreliable. Altho it's fine to use even an unreliable resource for "snowballing," a bibliography consisting almost entirely of websites will probably not be an adequate one. Barnet presents valuable criteria to use when evaluating a website on page 289 of the 11th edition of A Short Guide to Writing About Art
  • One or more original works of art may be on in your bibliography. If you choose an original work of art, it is especially appropriate to use one that you will be able to study in person.

  • Textbooks are normally NOT considered appropriate as a major source in your bibliography. Unless you are using a textbook to double-check information you'd like to treat as "common knowledge," inclusion of your course textbook in the bibliography screams out that you haven't really done your homework.

  • "Selected" or "Select" bibliography. When assembling the final draft of your bibliography there's no need to cite everything you looked at in developing your project. Be sure to include everything that you include in footnotes in your final draft. But there's no need to mention sources that you used only for "snowballing." This is where using the terms "selected" or "select" along with "Bibliography" is very useful, as it indicates that you are citing the most significant works that you consulted.

  • As your Select (or Selected) Bibliography gets longer, you may find it helpful to divide it into sections. At the beginning of your bibliography put a short introductory paragraph stating that you've organized your bibliography under the following headings: a) ... b) ... c) ... and so forth. The ellipses [...] indicate the place you'll put the titles of your choice

© Jan Mainzer