Many Different Faces: Bibliography’s Extended Family

Cousin Connie Atherton, or Constance as she wanted to be called – she always said it sounded more grownup,  you know – inherited Grandma’s large coffee-brown eyes. Grandpa’s curly black hair went to his great-grandson Jake , whose sister Mildred emerged from their mother Flora’s uterus with long tapered fingers, a Doppelganger of Uncle George, whose Turner-inspired paintings hung in the nave of St. Thomas the Apostle, the village’s stone church, untouched during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 … 

You may wonder what on earth family inheritance patterns have to do with bibliographies. No, I have not gone off the deep end, though lately the way certain things are shaping up, I’m sure no one would blame me if I did.

Like the fictitious Atherton family mentioned above, bibliographies stem from similar beginnings. They too come to life with different physical characteristics. A simple definition of bibliography could be described as nothing more than ” A list of books.” (1) And that’s just what you see at the back of most books and other works, an immensely long list of books arranged by author’s last name. Authors often label such a bibliography as “Select Bibliography,” implying that they perused many other sources, but found those sources cited to be the most useful.

Bibliographies such as these, especially if long, ranging on for pages, tend to be a bit useless for the serious researcher of whatever topic is underway. You can’t tell whether or not a certain resource will provide anything juicy for your pot, or paper/book/blog post, if you will. So unless you’re willing to check every single reference, scrutinizing bibliographies for pertinent references is like panning for gilt nuggets in a cold rushing river: you need to hurry and you might not strike gold, either.

But sometimes such a find crops up.

And then I like to imagine bibliographies as tree branches, not unlike those that grace a leafy family tree. One “find,” as in genealogy, leads to another, and still another. Soon the researcher/writer clambers to the top of tree, looking down upon the shoulders of the giants, the branches that hold up all the others, extending to the heavens as it were.

Or at least the top of the canopy until the next generation comes along.

As quick refresher to define the process of creating bibliographies, and why it’s necessary, take a moment to read this clarification from 1916:

bibliography of a subject is to the literature of that subject what an index is to a book. It shows the extent of that literature and the amount of work that has been bestowed upon it. It brings together scattered fragments of book knowledge and makes them readily accessible. Next to having knowledge is knowing where to go for it, and the only enduring guide in that direction is a bibliography. (2) 

Hundreds of bibliographies exist, and their compilation no longer requires rummaging through dusty piles of old journals and books black with mildew and the stench of mouse droppings. It’s possible to whip up a quite respectable bibliography via extensive database searching from the cleanliness of your own computer.

The Mitochondrial Eve of most bibliographies is the The Enumerative or Subject Bibliography. A subject bibliography covers material about a subject. Generally you’ll find this type at the back of most books and other published material.

But, as with any family, there are the relatives … lots of them:

The Annotated Bibliography: This short article explains the difference between an annotated bibliography and a literature review.

The Literature Review: Here you’ll learn how to create a literature review.

The Bibliographic Essay: The major purpose of this type of bibliography is to provide a portrait of the literature about a subject and an interpretation of that literature.

The Critical  Bibliography: An example of a critical bibliography, this of French literature.

The Descriptive/Analytical Bibliography: A close cousin to the Descriptiv/Analytical bibliography.

The Bio-Bibliography: The link takes you to a very short example. See also my own experience with this type of bibliography, which concerns the work and career trajectory of writers or other artists.

The Period Bibliography: Focused on a particular subject during a particular period of history, a period bibliography narrows itself down to very specific works. This link shows you a brief example from material pertaining to the Victorian era.

Language Bibliography: A language bibliography zeros in on the vast amount of literature in a particular language.

National Bibliography: A national bibliography covers the publishing within the borders of a country. This type of bibliography may be restricted to a given time period as well.

Regional Bibliography: Just what it says, a bibliography that covers literature related to a certain, often minute, region.

One of the most fascinating, and frustrating, aspects of bibliographies is that they’re never complete. So the poor bibliographer often views life in much the same way that Sisyphus must have while shoving that rock up the hill.

A final truism:  Significant overlap occurs with bibliographies, just as DNA mixes things up in families like the Athertons.

And one summer, while visiting Spencer House, five-year-old Jojo Atherton tip-toed up the creaky oak stairs to the second floor. In the oval mirror at the end of the long dim hallway, she thought she’d seen a ghost.

“Uncle James, is that you?”

Silence. A sudden breeze drifted through the opened windows and rippled through the faded drapery. Sunshine flashed like a bomb, lighting up the dim corridor. Jojo approached the mirror and stared. For the first time, she recognized that the source of her square jaw and long eyelashes never was her father.



(1) Roy Stokes, The Function of Bibliography. 2nd edition. (Aldershot: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1982), 1.

(2) Louis Nicholas Feipel, Elements of Bibliography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1916), 31.

(3) For more on the nuances of bibliography, see “Types of Bibliographies” .