How often do you use the bibliography at the back of a book or the bottom of an article? How often do you create your own bibliographies for what you write?
A bibliography is one of my favorite tools. When I read about a topic that interests me, a good bibliography can direct me to more detailed sources, preferably primary ones like letters or diaries.
When I’m doing research for one of my own projects, the bibliography is vital to both the writing and the editing process.
Bibliographies in other books and articles point me in the right direction. They even give me ideas for people to interview.
Writing my own bibliography of used sources during research saves me a lot of time during the writing and editing processes, especially if the piece is part of a series.
I take notes longhand as I read, whether I’m reading in print or digitally. If it’s a short article and I can print it out, I do so, and put it in my project folder in the project bin. If it’s book-length, or an archival material, I take notes as I go. Sometimes I type my notes later. Often, I don’t, because I annotate and comment on the notes themselves (and clearly mark my own musings). When I look at the note as I wrote it, I remember the context of the moment in which it was written, and that helps me when I use it.
If I’m going to type up and/or submit the sources, I used the standard format by author’s last name.
In my own notes, however, I start a fresh page for each source. Title, author(s). Where published, publisher, copyright date.
Then, vitally important: WHERE I FOUND THE SOURCE.
I use the library A LOT for research. Where I live now has 38 libraries within network. I can order from any of them. Massachusetts also has the Commonwealth Catalog, which means I can order from libraries and some archives all over the state.
I also have a library card at a library in a neighboring town that is the only library on Cape which is part of a different network — through their network, I also have access to all of those libraries.
If I want to go farther afield and use the Interlibrary Loan Service, I go onto World Cat and hunt for what I want, then put the request through the ILL desk at my home library.
Important: If you use Interlibrary Loan (ILL), always ASK if there’s a fee involved. Some libraries or archives charge to send materials out of state.
In my notes, if it’s from my home library, I’d just write the name of the library.
If it’s from another library in the network, I’d write (name of library) via (name of network).
Notation: Vineyard Haven Library via CLAMS network
Translation: the book comes from the Vineyard Haven library on Martha’s Vineyard and came to me via the CLAMS network.
Notation: Plymouth Library via Old Colony network
Translation: the book comes from the Plymouth Library on the South Shore and came to me via the Old Colony network, which means I picked it up and dropped it off at the Sandwich Library instead of my home library.
(I could also order this via the Commonwealth Catalog and pick it up/drop it off at my home library, if I didn’t
Notation: Boston Public Library via Commonwealth Catalog
Translation: the book came from the Boston Public Library system via Commonwealth Catalog.
Notation: U Mass Amherst Library via Commonwealth Catalog
Translation: the book came from the University of Massachusetts campus at Amherst via Commonwealth Catalog.
Notation: Microfilm. University of Indiana Bloomington via ILL. $17.
Translation: It was not a book, it was a roll of microfilm. It came via the Bloomington campus of the University of Indiana through the Interlibrary Loan System and cost $17.
(Note: I own both a microfilm and a microfiche machine, so I can work with both at home, if I order them via ILL. If I didn’t, I could use one of the few machines left in the area at a library or possibly an archive, with permission).
If I get information from a digital online collection, I make a note.
This way, as I write and edit, if I need more than the notes I took, I know where I found it, and where to go back and look for it.
For plays, especially historical plays, I use bibliographies as part of the dramaturgy, and can offer the information and sources to the producing organization and the company.
If I’m writing an article, the bibliographic notes I make are often listed on my fact check sheet. Fewer and fewer publications pay fact checkers (which is ridiculous), but I’m from the days when that was the norm, not the exception. Sources and quotes were checked and confirmed. Off the record sources had to be approved, and had to be verified by at least two and usually three on-record sources, whenever possible. When it was not possible, sometimes it couldn’t be included in the article, or it had to be mentioned that it was an off-the-record source without additional verification.
I also make a note on the reliability of the source. For instance, a diary entry is going to reflect the writer’s frame of reference. If further research shows that individual has a particular reason to like or dislike an individual, or there’s something that influences that point of view, I’ll make a note.
For instance if I’m hunting down a reference to Elizabeth C. in letters between Vera T. and Emily W, and I’ve done my research, I know that Vera hates Elizabeth because she knows her husband has a crush on her. The fact that Elizabeth has no intention of committing adultery with Vera’s husband doesn’t mean Vera’s gossip about Elizabeth are true or un-reflected in her letters to Emily, and that has to be taken into consideration.
If I’m writing fiction about the event, I can decide how I want to interpret Vera’s point of view in the way that best supports the story I’m telling. If I’m writing non-fiction, I have to weigh it against the rest of the evidence.
Even in fiction, it’s vital to make note of where I choose something that supports the story I want to tell best, and where it veers from the best historical record we can put together of what happened. I often mention it in the acknowledgements.
Because even well-researched fiction is FICTION. The more rooted it is in reality, in my opinion, the more one can suspend disbelief. It might be emotional truth (the best fiction often tells emotional truths better than historical record), but it’s still fiction.
Bibliography as inspiration
I read a biography of a particular person, and there’s a reference in passing to someone not central to the subject of the biography. But something about that reference catches my interest.
I’ll go through the footnotes (yes, I’m someone who reads the notes, too), and through the bibliography to see where that reference originated. Then, I go on the hunt.
The bibliography becomes the start when there’s been a spark of an idea. The bibliography guides me to additional information, so I can find out if the idea is viable.
The bibliography may look like a list, but to me, it’s an invitation to browse more shelves in more libraries or archives, and enter even more new worlds.