11 January 2013 by Published in: Rants 15 comments

Time for a good rant. I haven’t had one in a long while.

I was recently asked to write a review of this book for the next issue of Civil War Times magazine. I have lots of serious problems with this book–the author did virtually no research before writing it, and it is also horribly deficient in maps–but it also features my pet peeve about books.

When a new Civil War book is published, the first thing that I do is to look at the bibliography, as doing so tells me what sources were consulted by the author in writing the work. More importantly, a review of the bibliography shows me how deeply the author has delved into the primary sources, and in particular, into manuscript sources. If a review of the bibliography does not demonstrate a deep job of researching the primary sources by the author, I will not purchase the book, on the theory that it adds nothing. I simply cannot take a book that does include a bibliography seriously.

My pet peeve is when there is no bibliography at all. The book I just reviewed has no bibliography, and Carhart’s festering pile of turds does not have one either. The failure to include a bibliography permits a lazy, or worse, intellectually dishonest (see Carhart), author to hide his or her lack of research. The failure to include a bibliography permits the author to avoid being held accountable for his or her poor work and lack of substantive research. In the case of Carhart’s book, the failure to include a bibliography permits Carhart to hide the fact that he simply manufactured “facts” when there were none in the historical record to support his preposterous theory. With respect to the book that I just reviewed, the lack of a bibliography hides the incredibly shallow scope of the author’s research. The endnotes indicate that he used primarily secondary sources, a few commonly available published primary sources, and a handful of materials readily available on the World Wide Web. There is not a single reference to the Official Records, there is not a single reference to any manuscript sources not available on line, there is not a single reference to newspaper materials, and there are no references to any primary source research of any significance. That bibliography would, undoubtedly, have been embarrassingly short, which is probably the reason why it was not included.

I view the failure to include a bibliography in a book to be at best lazy and at worst the perpetration of intellectual fraud. And I categorically refuse to buy any book that does not include one because I don’t believe that any such book has anything whatsoever to add to the body of knowledge. If I buy the book, that sends a message that it’s okay to publish such works, and I never, ever want to do anything that could even remotely be construed as promoting the publication of such works.

Personally, I WANT the reader to see how much work went into researching and writing one of my books. I WANT the reader to see just how much effort goes into one of these projects before I ever set pen to paper. I am proud of it. Evidently, these other authors are not, which I cannot begin to comprehend.

I had included some discussion of this issue in my review, but there was not sufficient room for all of it, and most of my ranting about the lack of a bibliography had to be edited out. Instead, I figured I would share that rant with you here.

What do all of you think about books that lack bibliographies? Please share your thoughts with me here.

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Comments

  1. Linda J Guy
    Fri 11th Jan 2013 at 10:42 pm

    Personally, the bibliography is the FIRST thing I look at before I buy a book at the bookstore. If I am buying online I research the book and its contents as much as possible before I purchase it.

  2. Fri 11th Jan 2013 at 11:21 pm

    I don’t know. I thought your New Year’s Eve post on the Fleetwood saga was a pretty good (and well-deserved) rant.

    Anyway, I place a greater importance on footnotes. An author can compile a pretty impressive bibliography and never actually use any of the sources. I look at the sources they actually refer to in the footnotes and see if they include a lot of primary sources and good secondary sources.

  3. Susan Sweet
    Sat 12th Jan 2013 at 1:00 am

    If a book does not have a bibliography how do we know where the information comes from. I agree I check bibliographys . I also think footnotes are important. Footnotes tell you where the information came from.
    Good rant Eric totally agree.

  4. Dennis
    Sat 12th Jan 2013 at 6:59 am

    That is an important matter, and one I never considered in the past. Of course, I don’t have any books that don’t have bibliographies, at least by my casual check of the stacks.

    I will keep the information in mind for future use.

    Thanks, and another excellent rant Eric!

    Regards,
    Dennis

  5. Don
    Sat 12th Jan 2013 at 10:58 am

    Eric,

    Good rant, well stated. Like Linda, it’s one of the first things that I check. If there aren’t new sources in there that I haven’t seen before, I’m very unlikely to buy the book. In addition to everything else that you mentioned, it is simply laziness on the writer’s part.

    Personally, I want the sources in there so people can debate the interpretation of my writing. If you don’t agree with me, go back in and cite the source and let’s talk about it.

    Looking forward to more,
    Don

  6. Sat 12th Jan 2013 at 3:45 pm

    Eric,
    I agree with you. The first thing I do is look to see the footnotes or endnotes, then the bibliography. If the book is lacking any of these, I will skip the book.

  7. Mike Peters
    Sat 12th Jan 2013 at 11:57 pm

    Eric,

    Spot on Hoss!

  8. Brad Snyder
    Sun 13th Jan 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Eric,

    Any rant that contains a reference to Carhart’s “festering pile of turds” is pretty good in and of itself. Keep up the good work General!

  9. Chris Evans
    Sun 13th Jan 2013 at 5:43 pm

    I know what you are saying about bibliographies. I think books should have them.

    If a book doesn’t have them I don’t think it automatically makes them worthless. As a poster says above I think Footnotes and Endnotes are the key things to have.

    For example, Holzer’s book on Lincoln as President elect does not have a bibliography but it is extensively endnoted. I think that the book is still a excellent look at this time period and I definitely still enjoy reading and using it despite the lack of a bibliography but I can understand how frustrating it is not to have one.

    Chris

  10. Chris Evans
    Sun 13th Jan 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Another example I meant to mention is Edward Longacre’s books on the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia and on the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.

    I think those are excellent books certainly some of the best that Longacre has yet written. His bibliography in these books are chocked full of primary and secondary sources but he did not use all of them in the text as evidenced by going over the endnotes of the books. So he has a incredible bibliography but just used a core of sources for his text.

    Chris

  11. Sun 13th Jan 2013 at 9:45 pm

    The first thing that I turn to in a book are the footnotes/endnotes and then the bibliography. The footnotes/endnotes reveal the sources that the author actually used; bibliographies, although valuable, can be padded with sources that the author never used. I, too, am distressed when a book is missing a bibliography. If I am doing a research project and want to see the sources that the author used on a particular topic then the bibliography is a quick and easy resource to look through. By contrast, it is incredibly tedious to look through footnotes/endnotes for the same information. I can’t speak to the specific cases that you mentioned in your posting, but I have wondered if the lack of a bibliography may, in some cases, be publisher driven.

  12. Tue 15th Jan 2013 at 2:30 am

    With the advent of the net, even publisher resistance is not an excuse for a lack of a bibliography and footnotes. A free word press site can hold all the academic accoutrements necessary. In addition, it is always welcome for the beginner to find a bibliographic essay, just a one pager, on interesting sources that he or she may want to read.

  13. Tue 15th Jan 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Perhaps a bigger question: Why is the Civil War Times even bothering to review it? Speaks more about them than the quality of the book. Why review an inferior publication when so many others that are deeply researched and well written are ignored.

  14. Sal Cilella
    Wed 16th Jan 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Agreed on all points. What we are all saying, whether you call them “footnotes,” “endnotes,” “primary sources,” “secondary sources,” or a “bibliography,” is that they are all scholarly apparatus. They provide evidence that a writer has intellectually engaged his/her subject, sorted the evidence, made critical judgments based on the evidence and consulted what other scholars had to say on the subject. I also check the dust cover for the author’s resume. Those with no scholarly experience (all the above) are rejected.

  15. John Foskett
    Fri 18th Jan 2013 at 6:19 pm

    Here’s my problem with any book which has source notes but not a bibliography (aside from the inconvemience of having to go through the notes in order to discern what the author has used). One can’t know which sources the author has consulted but (1) has used only for general background/context or (2) has rejected. For example, a bibliography should in my opinion show that manuscript sources were consulted even if they didn’t result in material in the final, edited text which merits a note. The reader then knows at least that the author has presumably looked in the right places but didn’t encounter anything which justifies a note.

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