HST 331: Time Travelers for Social Justice (Dr. Donohue): Historiography & Bibliographic Essay

URL: https://libguides.cmich.edu/HST331

Historiography: Examples and Methods

Bibliographic Essay Defined

A bibliographic essay is a narrative discussion, i.e., a review, of the literature on a topic. It is the equivalent of a conversation in which someone not only advises you about "what's out there" but shapes that raw material into a coherent survey of the materials available. Like all bibliographies, the bibliographic essay enumerates sources and, like an annotated bibliography, it describes and analyzes them.  It goes beyond performing these functions, however, to comparing, contrasting, and evaluating the relationships among works. A bibliographic essay thus draws a picture of the literature of a topic, and in so doing, unlike a list and like an essay, it tends to take a position and establish an interpretive point of view.

To compile a bibliographic essay, begin by asking two related questions:

1. Who is writing? That is, who is writing what and publishing or purveying it where and to whom? Elaborate this question by asking further questions:

  • who are these writers (professional academics, professional writers or "persons of letters," amateurs, men or women, etc.)
  • what might their background have to do with their writing and the body of material they…
  • what kinds of information or documentation are the authors using or creating
  • what scholarly, commercial, or private organizations are publishing or purveying materials, and who is their audience

2. What are they writing about and how are they writing about it? Elaborate this question by asking further questions:

  • what are the theories, conclusions, images, or points of view in these materials
  • what assumptions do they make or question
  • what do they leave out
  • what are the problems, issues, and points of contention or debate
  • how do works go about presenting their argument, and what kinds of evidence, expectations, traditions, and images do they call upon or evoke

In addition to these questions about individual sources, your essay will also want to account for similarities and differences among works. You will want to investigate changes over time, geography, and demography as to whose work and what ideas, points of view, images, and representational strategies are influential, as to how the available material has developed in terms of themes, emphases, subjects treated, historical methods, modes of representation, groups of authors or schools of thought, etc. All of these questions lead to building the "compare and contrast" superstructure that characterizes the bibliographic essay.

With such questions in mind, how, at a practical level, do you go about gathering sources to read?

1. Survey a number of works. Your survey will identify and locate candidates for reading. In addition to hints from class reading and discussion and advice from your professor, you can survey the possibilities in two ways, namely, 1) by using relevant reference works (e.g., encyclopedias and dictionaries of late antiquity), and 2) by using a variety of databases available through the Smather’s Library webpage.  For most topics, spending some time with the reference and secondary literature not only will be a vital part of your research but should be the first step you take.

2. Legwork and scanning. To decide which books you will treat in your essay, look at tables of contents and indexes, read introductions, skim sections of each book. Those books on which you choose not to concentrate in your essay will become material for your footnotes or bibliography and for mentioning in passing. Remember that the purpose of a bibliographic essay is to advise people on what to read and that to do so you will have to demonstrate your command of the topic by being able to tell them about the books they do not need to read as well. In other words, the books you concentrate on will be the tip of an iceberg, the submerged body of which you will also want to sketch.

Further suggestions. 

As appropriate for your topic, you should establish a historical and interdisciplinary context for the theme of the essay; discuss prominent scholarship in fields related to the topic; survey important schools of thought or scholarly trends, focusing on distinctive methodologies and provocative departures from disciplinary trends in your field; and discuss and contrast the more important monographs. Abbreviations, acronyms, and the key terms that recur throughout the essay or that might suffer from some implicit ambiguity should be defined.  Essays should be both descriptive and evaluative in surveying the relevant titles, although value judgments that run the risk of obsolescence should be avoided (e.g., "the most important study") The use of explicit verbs (e.g., "contends," "asserts," "demonstrates," "presupposes") is encouraged. Works that are seminal should be identified as such. Do not list titles without commentary.

The bibliographic essay should discuss all the historiographical work (monographs and articles) done on a particular subject in the last 10-20 years, with reference to any classic works written before 1990 which are crucial to our understanding of that topic.  The bibliographic essay should say a lot about the historiography of a topic, but not too much about the specific works it surveys. It should be more focused on recent work and should say more (but not too much more) on those works. The length of your essay for this assignment should be somewhere between 4 and 6 pages in length and should refer to or discuss at least 6 secondary sources.  Anything longer than that probably says too much or the topic is too generally defined. Anything shorter probably doesn’t say enough or the topic is too narrowly defined. Your bibliographical essay should say very little about what happened, instead focusing almost entirely on what historians have had to say about what happened.

You can produce a bibliographical essay on virtually any topic.. One hint that may help you with your selection of a topic include making sure there are more than a dozen or so works (monographs/articles) written on the topic. If not, your topic is probably too narrow. A second hint is that there should be some sort of on-going discussion among historians about the topic, meaning that something comes out almost every year. Some great historical controversies die for lack of additional archival discoveries or methodological controversies. Try not to pick one that has stopped breathing or that is on its last legs. No matter what, you will have to think carefully and critically about your topic. Otherwise, you will end up spending too much time in the library stacks and not enough time in front of your word processor. Finally, a bibliographical essay that takes into account only those works published in English might very well be considered less than complete.

(Text and content written by Dr. Andrea Sterk, Associate Professor of History, University or Florida)

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