Bibliographies – In Danger of Extinction?

I was shocked, dismayed, and disappointed when I recently read a couple of non-fiction historical works – complete with footnotes and written by very well respected scholars – which did not have bibliographies.

I don’t understand why a publisher would omit about 20 pages of truly useful material. Maybe to people who don’t do research, who are just interested in sales of product and economizing, those extra 20-30 pages of academic details are just fluff, icing on the cake, and we’re all trying to be on a low-fat diet. But bibliographies, along with footnotes – are the bread and butter of academic research!

Sure, the footnotes are still there, and are in their own way invaluable – but bibliographies serve a different function. Footnotes help you find the specifics – like the individual newspaper article where X is reported, or the court case that set up Y, or the letter home from soldier Z who told his wife about what he saw at Shiloh.

But bibliographies paint the broader picture. What resources – especially books, some of which might be somewhat obscure – did the author use to inform the broader context and background of their topic? Perhaps there is not a single quotation or reference to a particular book (which would be documented in a footnote), but nevertheless that book’s theoretical background or overall perspective on a subject was invaluable in the way the author approched her subject.

I’ve also found bibliographies particularly important in my own research. If I know I’m going to be making a trip to Indiana, for example, and scholar A cites several collections of materials at the Indiana Historical Society on a certain subject, I can target those materials for my research when I go there. Having a bibliography puts all references to collections at a particular institution together in one place. I don’t have to search through pages and pages of footnotes to compile my own list of “what sources did they use from Indiana?” This, for me, is the most critical and vital purpose of bibliographies. I cannot state this forcefully enough: Bibliographies are an essential tool for furthering scholarly research and inquiries!

What I believe publishers may not realize is that the bibliography may not be nearly as important to the author of a work, as it is to the work’s readers. Maybe I’ve just finished a great book, and I want to read more on the subject. A bibliography enables me to do that.

That being said, a bibliography is still extremely important to the author as well. As a hypothetical author, I would fight tooth and nail to get a bibliography included in my book. I’ve done far too much work and research to have half of my toil omitted by completely ignoring sources that I have consulted, though I may not have quoted them.

It seems also that a bibliography is a good, open method for me as a scholarly writer to inform others about sources that I may have unconsciously drawn upon. Perhaps I pick up and use a phrase or perspective in my work that I “absorbed through osmosis” in my various background reading. A bibliography would cite that source. Without the bibliography, I might be in danger of having the appearance that that catchy concept was my own – instead of someone else’s, though hopefully I would be conscientious enough to avoid this pitfall.

I don’t know how prevalent this practice of omitting bibliographies has become. My recent experience is based upon two books put out by Alfred A. Knopf, by two very highly respected scholars: My Face Is Black Is True by Mary Frances Berry (more on this one, later) and This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. I don’t know if other publishers are following this trend, or if Knopf is the only one to throw out the bibliography with the bath water.

But I find it a sad day for academic and scholarly publishing – even when done by more popular presses, as opposed to university presses – when the bibliography seems headed the way of the dodo bird, towards extinction.

©2008 writingreading

One Response to Bibliographies – In Danger of Extinction?

  1. writingreading says:

    A reader from Britain who wishes to remain anonymous tells me that she
    recently encountered a similar situation. She was informed by a
    publisher that her bibliography would be included in her overall word
    count for her book. Because of this limitation, she’s finding she’s
    having to be more selective in what she includes in her bibliography.

    She writes: “So, my rant is – it’s not just doing away with Bblios
    altogether (which is obviously weird and wrong), it’s peculiar and
    insidious practices like keeping them within the word count, which are
    unhelpful for future scholars trying to do follow up research.”

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