How to Build a Digital Annotated Bibliography

by Giulia Brabetz


If it takes a village to write a book, it must take at least a metropolis to compose an annotated bibliography. Given that the amount of effort scales linearly to the amount of included literature, an annotated bibliography can be a tremendous undertaking.


Admittedly, that thought seemed simultaneously frightening and intriguing when I received the task that would consume most of my work during the winter 2020/21 lockdown and form the centerpiece of my position as Dr. Ken Chitwood’s research assistant at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies at Freie Universität Berlin.


In this essay, I reflect on some of the skills I acquired compiling the Américan Muslims Bibliography. I do so in order to offer insight on the working process of establishing such an immense project – the obstacles, the methods, the tools, the learning experiences. This includes the outline of a methodological approach to writing an annotated online bibliography. Lastly, I touch upon skills required to successfully complete such a large project and offer some reflections on the overall takeaways of establishing an online annotated bibliography.


Background


During the research and writing process of his first book, The Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean, Dr. Chitwood kept detailed track of all the resources he consulted to compose his introductory work to Islam and Muslim communities in the Americas. His plan was to transform the resulting list of nearly five hundred resources into an online annotated bibliography that would serve as an easily accessible and evolving overview of the topic to researchers, journalists, students, and other people interested in the topic. As his research assistant, it was my task to read, analyze, and organize these resources, to write annotations for many of them, and compose the Américan Muslims Bibliography.


A few thoughts on method


The first and most important issues to address before composing a bibliography are 1) which purpose it is supposed to fulfill, and 2) how to structure it accordingly. In an emerging and diverse field such as Islamic Studies in the Americas, the purpose of a bibliography is to introduce people to the topic and guide them towards resources linked to their prior knowledge, rather than giving an overview of all the resources available. Hence, Dr. Chitwood came up with a four-fold approach that would help readers quickly find what they are searching for but also highlight the internal structure of the field without attempting to provide an exhaustive overview. In that regard, an online bibliography resembles a living being more than a traditional book because the document can grow and benefit from ongoing revisions, edits, and additions.


To help users find the right resource, the bibliography’s structure is divided into four sections: 1) geographic locations, 2) reoccurring research themes, 3) types of resources, and 4) authors’ last names.


"...an online bibliography resembles a living being more than a traditional book because the document can grow and benefit from ongoing revisions, edits, and additions."

As a novice to the field, the second category structured according to common topics proved especially beneficial to my learning experience. Instead of just skimming the resources, this structure encouraged me to think about the field’s overarching themes. This includes the reiterating question familiar to all empirical researchers: How to draw clear boundaries in a field that is naturally disorganized due to the multilayered nature of, in this case, primarily ethnographic research concerned with intertwining cultures, languages, and ideologies.


To bring order into this chaos and tackle the monumental task of fitting about five hundred resources into twenty categories, I worked with three tools, one digital, the others mental.


First, the composition of an annotated bibliography requires stamina. To not become demotivated by the workload, it is imperative to set clear guidelines for how and when to reach specific goals by dividing the informational chaos into smaller, more manageable bits of significant knowledge patterns.


Second, the reference management software Citavi proved to be invaluable. Although it took a few hours fixing incorrect or incomplete resource data and working around bugs in the program, it would have taken a lot longer to manually type and check all the resources while at the same time keeping in mind the specifications for each of the different resource types.


Third, and most importantly, the sheer amount of data typically included in an annotated bibliography requires skim-reading and capturing tag phrases to construct a coherent picture of a resource’s content within minutes.


"This multilingual quest also forced me to realize, once again, the linguistic hegemony of English on the internet and especially in academia."

To employ this kind of reading, it is necessary to be attentive and sensitive towards the language used in the resources. This becomes even more important if the researcher is not proficient in all the languages of the concerned resources. As a student of Middle Eastern Studies, I am capable of comprehending English, Arabic, a bit of Hebrew, a bit less of French, and my native tongue German. These linguistic skills were quickly pushed to their limits while going through a body of literature about Latin America and the Caribbean that often includes resources in Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. To find these resources on the web and detect their themes, it was necessary to learn some key phrases in Spanish and Portuguese which are, por suerte, quite similar due to their linguistic genealogic proximity.


This multilingual quest also forced me to realize, once again, the linguistic hegemony of English on the internet and especially in academia. While it is sensible to have a common vernacular as a base for global communication and understanding, the difficulty of finding academic resources in the field of Latin American and Caribbean studies in the corresponding national languages was sometimes alarming. Although this obstacle is partially caused by my narrow linguistic horizon, I was shocked by the limited access to Spanish and Portuguese literature on the topic in common academic resource engines, especially given their relevance to the field of Islamic Studies in the Americas. I took this realization of post-colonial hegemonic structures on the web and in academia as intrinsic motivation to continue working on this project – to contribute a small part to the decolonialization of knowledge and the shift of academic attention away from traditional Euro-centric perspectives, towards the pluralistic diversity of the world’s various cultures and intellectual centers.


More network thinking and “an unquenchable thirst for knowledge”


Composing and editing the Américan Muslims Bibliography was an invaluable process that required different types of skills.


The most important takeaway is the network thinking that was enabled by realizing the iterations and connections of certain themes. The deep-dive overview that an annotated bibliography requires equips researchers with the ability to trace the underlying structures, reoccurring topics, and common expressions in a field to eventually enable them to map it out and bring seemingly disparate topics into communication with each other.


At the same time, and although the process expanded my skill and area knowledge set, I found it to be partially a repetitive and sometimes exhausting process. For anyone intending to embark on a similar adventure, I recommend a single trait that might decide the success or failure of such an undertaking: An unquenchable thirst for knowledge.


"The deep-dive overview that an annotated bibliography requires equips researchers with the ability to trace the underlying structures, reoccurring topics, and common expressions in a field to eventually enable them to map it out and bring seemingly disparate topics into communication with each other."

Giulia Brabetz works as a research assistant at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures & Societies. She completed her BA in Semitic Studies and is currently enrolled in the MA program of linguistics at Freie Universität Berlin. As editor of the LACISA newsletter, her writing experience encompasses the academic and journalistic field, having published with Religion Unplugged and Rawafed-Zusammenfluss.