The Joy of Bibliographies

Compiling bibliographies is a bit like blowing bubbles, for you never know how big the bubbles will be or how far away they’ll float through the air.

Or where they’ll land.

And that’s the exciting bit about bibliographies. You can’t know when you set out on the journey where you’ll end up.

If you compile bibliographies the old-fashioned way without resorting to the sterility of database searching, the act itself often turns out to be more exciting than watching an episode of “Forensic Files.” You may not stumble upon murder or mayhem – but you just might, if you read between the lines with the soul of a skeptic. One clue leads to another, until you’re peering at a huge labyrinth of interlocking paths, all leading to the center, the core, the crux of your research.

The recipe for a good old-fashioned compilation starts with one basic ingredient: another bibliography, usually in a book highly regarded – that is, cited numerous times – by scholars.

Or by other experts in whatever endeavor you’re undertaking.

Where the heck do you find this information?

One way is through a database search of such tools as the Web of Science, the old ISI Citation Indexes, or Elsevier’s Scopus.*

Another, older way is to look at the bibliographies of several books on your topic. If the same books appear over and over, you’ve found your first clue. From that, you can begin choosing references to look at from the bibliography of the most-cited book and go from there. The process resembles the creation of a large family tree. Hunting for information through a database can’t compare to the thrill of running your finger down the page, checking off many references you very likely wouldn’t ever learn of while doing a database search.


Indexing is a process that doesn’t always apply the same terms/tags where they should be applied, given that humans do the initial applying. So, you might find references in your book that won’t turn up when you use your search terms in the database.

When you begin to see the same references over and over again, you can be pretty sure you’ve come face-to-face with the basic core of your topic.

What a joy!

To be continued with some musings on types of bibliographies.

*Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search also offer citation indexing. Feature photo of blowing bubbles from Wiki Commons.

John Scottowe. “Alphabet” from “Calligraphic Alphabet,” 1592. Wing MS

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