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Contemporary Canadian Govt. & Politics: A Research Guide: Bibliographies

Looking for a "Jewel": The Role of Bibliographies in the Research Process

Introduction: The role of bibliographies in the research process 

A bibliography is a list of books, articles, government documents, manuscripts and other publications on a subject, described and arranged in some systematic order. Bibliographies may be book-length, and are also found as lists of publications in individual books, articles and entries in encyclopedias, etc.

First step to faster research: Find published bibliographies 

Research tip: Search for bibliographies at the beginning of the research process. They provide information on what has been published in a given subject area and can save hours of research. 

Bibliographies are often overlooked in the research process but they are a valuable tool. The compiler, in most cases, a professor or librarian, has gathered together a list of sources on a specific topic which means that a good deal of research has already been completed. As pointed out by Gregory Mahler, author of two of the best bibliographies on Canadian government and politics, the main advantage of a bibliography is that it reduces the more tedious and mechanical part of doing research - the process of pouring over many indexes and databases searching for relevant information (Mahler 1988, ix). Unfortunately, there are too few subject bibliographies published, but look carefully and you may be able to find one of these 'jewels' (Jones 1998, 114). 

Why bibliographies are still important

It has been argued that published bibliographies have become passé because they have been replaced by online searches of databases, library catalogues and the Internet. Online searches can gather together a pool of relevant resources without the need for a bibliography. While it is true the power of search engines make this possible, it is a superficial argument. Published bibliographies cannot be replaced in the research process for a number of reasons: 

  • They are the work of experienced scholars, librarians and researchers who can judge the significance of the material. This indication of quality provides a remedy to the proliferation of published literature.
  • Bibliographies can organize citations in a helpful manner and make it possible to find relevant information quickly. The best bibliographies provide subject grouping to give some indication of the schema of the discipline with a keyword index for quick access. 
  • They may include valuable information from sources not covered by databases (eg. chapters in books, government documents, conference proceedings, dissertations, primary sources, etc.). 
  • Even seasoned researchers don't always use search engines effectively and miss relevant resources. 
  • Bibliographies save the need to repeat a search in many different databases and indexes. 

All this being said, it is difficult to convince people of the need to consult a bibliography. Indeed, Thomas Mann, a seasoned reference librarian at the Library of Congress, notes that almost every researcher uses a bibliography at the end of a book or article which happens to come their way but it is comparatively rare that a researcher starts out by looking for bibliographies. A secret of professional researchers is that they start their investigations by looking for published bibliographies (Mann 1998, 131).  However, it is worth noting that people are generally much more willing to use an online bibliography with a search engine. Some of the bibliographies listed in this section have taken this approach 

Bibliographies are invaluable tools for quickly accessing the literature of a subject. 

Works cited 
Jones, Lois Swan. Art Information and the Internet: How to Find it, How to Use it. (Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1999).
Mahler, Gregory. Contemporary Canadian Politics: An Annotated Bibliography, 1970-1987. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988).
Mann, Thomas. The Oxford Guide to Library Research. Revised ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Whiteley, Sandy, Ed. The American Library Association Guide to Information Access: A Complete Handbook and Directory. (New York: Random House, 1994).