Umberto Eco’s Advice for Compiling a Research Bibliography

umberto ecoI’ve been in a bit of a rut with my own research lately. It was nothing devastating (though it certainly seemed so at the time), but it showed me the necessity of stepping back and re-evaluating and re-thinking a big chunk of my thesis. This prompted me to further go back and reach for Umberto Eco’s How to Write A Thesis. Over the next few days I’ll write up some of the things I find most interesting as I get through this text. So far it’s a trove of useful advice!

Today I’ll start with his advice for beginning a working bibliography. I’ve expanded on it a little bit, including both what I’ve learned works for me, but also what I think would be acceptable given more modern research methods (in humanities). Most of this is in Chapter 3 of the book.

  1. Start with a preliminary search of the library catalogue. Don’t just search for the exact research topic you’re interested in, but also surrounding ideas and concepts.
  2. Once you have a number of sources, skim through the relevant chapters/sections and copy down their bibliographies (be exact and complete).
  3. Cross-check these with some general reference works on the topic to see which works are cited most often. This will help establish a preliminary hierarchy and give priority to the readings.
  4. Write down the full bibliographical details for each source on a separate index card (Endnote or Mendelay will do that these days).
  5. To avoid duplicating sources, organise them alphabetically by author’s name. These days Endnote or Mendeley will do such things automatically. A spreadsheet will also do nicely.
  6. Annotate this bibliography with details of where to find the text (i.e. what library if you search in multiple places) and its call number at the library.
  7. Once complete, the bibliography should be organised according to the hierarchy. That is, must-read and important texts should be flagged somehow (something Endnote and Mendeley will excel at – you can just chuck a bunch of references into their own folder) and given priority.

I really love this approach to building a bibliography, and I really love the idea of building an index card library, like Eco suggests. Even if it isn’t entirely practical, there is something romantic about it. My own approach is to build a working bibliography as I go along in Endnote. I’m horrified that I’ll accidentally delete the file one day though. But then, I’ve got ten backups.