How to write the preface to an enumerative bibliography

What is an exhaustive, enumerative bibliography?

Short answer: a reference bibliography that lists primary and/or secondary sources. Unlike a Works Cited (which aims to acknowledge the sources in a critical argument), a reference bibliography aims to give a complete list of potential sources. You might think of it as a genre that facilitates the critical arguments of other people. It is enumerative because it lists or enumerates the sources according to the organizational principles set out by the preface. It is exhaustive because it aims to list ALL the sources within the parameters set out by the preface. This bibliography may also be annotated with short descriptions of enumerated items, but doesn’t have to be.

You have seen and used such lists, even if you don’t know it. Many journals include articles with titles like “Recent Studies in …”; these are exhaustive, enumerative, annotated bibliographies of a particular subset of scholarship. If you’ve ever looked at an author’s complete publication list, you’ve used an exhaustive, enumerative bibliography. If you’ve used the MLA International Bibliography, you’ve used a digital version of an exhaustive bibliography, although it’s not enumerative because it doesn’t list the items according to any organizational principles.

Why is the preface so important?

The preface sets out the parameters of your bibliography. If the list is going to be useful to anyone other than you, it must have a preface explaining the principles of selection and organization in such a way that readers know what the list represents and how to use it.

Functions of the preface

It’s helpful to think about any piece of writing in terms of its functions (i.e., what it must DO to be maximally clear and useful). If your preface fulfills each of the following tasks, then it is probably well on its way to being a research tool that others can use.

Spell out the scope.

What is the scope of your bibliography? Is it a bibliography of primary sources? Of secondary sources? What does it include? What does it exclude? What parameters limit your list?

Sample parameters:

  • time (items after a certain date and before a certain date)
  • genre (limit primary sources by genre)
  • author
  • publisher
  • printer
  • bibliographic feature (like font, size, binding, provenance)
  • geography or region
  • material form
  • peer-review status
  • medium

Explain any gaps in or omissions from the list.

If you have consciously omitted potential items from your list, explain what and why. If there are inbuilt limitations to your dataset, explain them. (Example: you might be trying to compile a complete list of a certain type of text but some of the texts have been lost. Explain how you know that they must have existed.) It’s important to explain gaps in a list because absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Give credit to your sources or explain your methodology in compiling the list.

List and acknowledge all of the sources from which you’ve compiled your list. Possible secondary sources include:

  • other bibliographies and/or finding aids
  • library catalogues
  • auction catalogues
  • digital libraries
  • databases
  • footnotes and/or Works Cited lists
  • manuscript lists
  • unpublished work other scholars might have shared with you

If relevant, explain your methodology. Example: if you used particular keywords, search strings, or limiting parameters when searching online catalogues and databases, explain them. If you wrote to libraries and asked for information, what did you ask for and why?

List and justify the metadata that you include.

What information have you recorded about each item on the list? Sometimes, the metadata will need little explanation (e.g., if it’s standard reference bibliography metadata like author, title, city, publisher, and date). In other cases, you will need to explain in detail how to parse the metadata (e.g., id numbers from specialized reference works like the STC, codes that you might have invented).

If this information is not equally available for every item on your list, say so and explain why. Generally, we want to be consistently “granular” or “detailed” in our description of items on the list. We want users of the bibliography to be able to assume that lack of metadata means that there is no metadata to record (and not that you have simply failed to record it).

You also need to explain the organizational principles of your bibliography. Is it organized alphabetically by author? by alphabetically by title? chronologically (by what criteria)? by format? by some critical feature?

Explain the value and limitations of the list.

Explain briefly how users might interact with the list. What research questions do you imagine your users answering with your list. What’s the point of your list? What questions will users NOT be able to answer using your bibliography? If possible, direct users to other resources that complement your bibliography. How might this bibliography be continued or augmented in the future?

A Bibliography for your Preface and Enumerative Bibliography

Note that you may need to provide a bibliography FOR your preface and enumerative bibliography. If you have consulted sources in compiling your list of sources, you need to acknowledge those sources. Do not include them IN your enumerative bibliography. Rather, make a list of sources. Some enumerative bibliographies will include a parenthetical note indicating the source of the item; in this case, you will want to provide a list of abbreviations, normally immediately after the preface.