Creating a bibliography or database

Amazing book art by Victoria Reichelt

By Marie-Pierre Renaud

During the course of your studies, you will spend countless hours reading and creating bibliographies and databases for your own classes and research or for a contract. Here is some advice of to help you do the best job you can and save as much time as possible.

1. Make a plan

Think you can simply get started randomly? Think again. If you want to do a thorough research and find credible information, you need to map out how you’ll proceed. What databases will you search in? What combinations of keywords should you use? Should you pay attention to authors from a specific field? What is the nature of the information you are looking for? Of course, the answers to these questions depend on your research question or topic, but they are always important to consider.

Researching randomly might seem to save you time at first, but it won’t. At some point, you will have to write about your research methodology and it wouldn’t be a great idea to either make one up or admit you didn’t have one. In addition, making a plan will allow you to identity the specific nature of the information you are looking for, thus making you more efficient during your search. You will also be able to know once you have collected the information you need and won’t keep reading without a notion of where you are going.

In many cases, you should also ask yourself if you should expand your research to material written in other languages. This might seem frightening if you only speak one language, but you can always use google translate to get a fairly good translation in most cases. In addition, once you discover a prolific author who writes in a language other than your own, you can start a new search using his name to see if some of his work has been translated.

Don’t forget to take notes as you go. If you include new search engines, key words combinations or journal in you research plan, write it down. When the time comes to write about your methodology in your paper, you’ll be glad you did.

2. Get the right tools

One of the worst ideas you can get is that you can start recording information in a Word document and organise it later. Do you know how long it is to correct a 36 pages long bibliography? I do. And I’ve seen databases that were built-in a 1000+ pages Word document. It’s hard to navigate and simply doesn’t give you enough options. Get the rights tools. You might have to spend 30 minutes learning how to use them, but you will save time for the rest of your studies and career after that. Allow me to illustrate.

Using a software such as EndNote, you can create a file for each document you read. In this file, you can add notes about the content of the document. EndNote will automatically format the reference for this document according to the norms you will select: many journals, university departments and professors create their own downloadable format you can add-on your computer. Using this feature, you won’t have to rewrite your references every time you are given different norms to respect. The software will do it for you. In addition, your documents will be regrouped in a database you can organise in categories and search through with keywords you assign to each document.

If you study anthropology as I do, you might be familiar with NVivo. This software is very useful to code (categorize contents) the contents of interviews you collected during fieldwork. In the past, all interviews had to be transcribed in order to do so. But the new edition allows you to code audio contents! Ah, the hours and hours we will save with this feature!

Many universities offer such softwares to their students for free. You might be able to download them onto your computer via your university’s library or use them on computers on campus. As I mentioned in a previous post, you can often register for free classes on how to use them too. Again, check with your campus library. This is often where it’s at. I recommend using Mendeley: it’s free and very user-friendly. It allows you to access the pdf files you add in your database online via different computers and devices and automatically seizes information. I use it on my laptop, iPad ad computer office. I recently started scanning a mountain of paper copies of documents I had taken notes in to organize them with this software. It saved me tons of space in my office. It is also a brilliant idea to use such software to archive all the documents you read or write during your studies. See previous advice for students post on this topic.

Knowing how to use these softwares is a huge plus not only during your studies but also during your career. EndNote and NVivo are industry and research standards and I use them when I work on contracts. Invest time in learning how to use them properly and you won’t regret it.

SKM’s favorite travel memoirs and essay collections by Jane Mount

3. Proceed

Use various keywords combinations to start researching a topic. Once you find some interesting documents, check what else the authors have written. Analyses the contents as you go: that way you will notice when you have found all the information you need or know what else you are missing. When you start feeling like the information you find is repetitive, chances are you went around the topic fairly well. If on the contrary, you can’t seem to hit that point, just know when to stop.  You are writing a paper, not an encyclopedia. Don’t forget to take brief notes on the process : what keywords you used, on what search engines and databases, and what areas of the literature you focused on or didn’t get around to analyzing in detail.

4. Create

While writing your paper, you might be able to use an auto referencing feature such as the ones offered by EndNote and Mendeley. Using the software of your choice, generate the references for the documents your read. Make sure you know which format you must use for this. If you were given no instructions on the format of the bibliography, simply organize it in alphabetical order (author’s last name) and list the most recent works first. For documents written by the same author on the same year, add letters beside the year of publication so the references included in the paper might be clear.

5. Keep it safe!

Don’t ever toss away work you have done, may it be a paper or bibliography. I recommend you create a personal database instead. Keep all the references together using a software and if you have pfd copies of documents, organize them in folders. This is especially important for undergraduate students to consider. There might come a day when you want to use a paper you read years before. Don’t waste time searching for it again or worse, not finding it at all. Trust me on this: I look back on the papers I have read or written in the last 6 years I have spent studying anthropology and often think that if I had kept them organised with Mendeley or simply on the same computer or USB key, I would have saved enough time to write more articles. When you think about it, you could publish a book with everything you write during your studies, and you should consider that as a possibility. Don’t go throwing hard work by forgetting where you saved a paper.

Never hesitate to ask for help either. More experienced students and professors can share their own methods and tips if you ask.

I hope this advice can be of help to you! Now go on and tackle your work!

About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations!

There are 4 comments

  1. katie-coral sicora

    Hi There! Great blog : ). It particularly love your ideas upfront about having a plan and picking the right tools. I manage the user community for Dedoose and I talk about these two points in particular with users all the time. A lot of people don’t think about the story they are going to tell with their data, and it makes the whole research process more difficult.

    Have you ever considered using Dedoose? It is a web based qualitative and mixed methods research software. It is on the same level as NVivo, but being online means that you can take your research anywhere and you back up your data to the cloud versus your hard-drive and all that. You can check it out at It was actually created by two researchers (Dr. Tom Weisner, a full professor of Anthropology at UCLA is one of them) who were pretty much fed up with the software options available so they created their own.

    Love the blog and keep up the good work! Research can be tough, but someone has to do it! 🙂


    1. thegeekanthropologist

      True, the first steps are demanding, but the result is worth the effort. If you can find a scanner that can process piles of paper, you’ll save tons of time. Or, download documents you already have on paper and recycle the paper copies. At least if you create a system and stick to it, you’ll eventually get organized and have lots more room on your desk.


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