Bibliography: A Source of Frustration
By now the organised Classics student will have chosen, or at least started thinking about, their essays for term two. After getting through the palaver that is the first term of essays, the thought of doing it all over again seems exhausting, particularly when considering the sheer number of sources required.
Bibliography is something I struggled with in first year, and I can’t claim to say I’m completely over it yet. It can be confusing to decipher what mark schemes mean when they want a ‘good range’ of sources, and an understanding of ‘where they’re coming from’, particularly since the terms used are always rather vague.
For this reason, I’ve put together a few tips on tackling sources that I hope will be useful for those struggling with this aspect of their essay-writing.
1) Choosing your bibliography
It can be really tempting to show off by ignoring the recommended bibliography and using books you have at home, or have pulled randomly from library shelves. My advice: don’t. I’ve done this in the past, and it was a mistake. The books the lecturers have recommended have been highlighted for a reason. They are trusted and well-established, and tailored to fit the question at hand. Of course, it would not make sense to stick solely to these works, however they provide a solid foundation for your arguments which will almost certainly be appreciated by your lecturer. When looking for supplementary sources, use the bibliography in these recommended books to find arguments that compare and contrast well to what you have already built up.
2) How many primary and how many secondary?
It is a common misconception to believe that you must have an equal balance of primary and secondary evidence. It is really important to look at the question you have been set, and to ask yourself whether you will be expecting more primary or more secondary sources for the topic. For example, if your question is about the Iliad, it’s unlikely that you will be using much, if any, archaeological evidence, and your main primary source will be the text itself. For this kind of question there will be an obvious emphasis on secondary reading, and when your lecturer marks your work this is what they will be expecting to see.
3) How do I know if a secondary source is reliable?
It’s not hard to assess the bias of a primary source, as this is often quite obvious from their style of writing and a quick background check. However, it can be difficult to work out whether a secondary source is not only biased, but also a reliable source of ideas. One of the best ways to work this out is by looking at their biography. Do they have a degree, or are they just writing for fun? What’s their specialism? How long ago was the book published, and could the ideas therefore be outdated or disproved? Finding out the answers to these questions can be helpful in assessing the reliability of secondary material, and useful when you want to shout them down.
4) Analysing a source
I hate to drag it back to the basics, but the whole ‘Point, Evidence, Explain.’ thing is actually a really useful way to begin to structure your analysis in an essay. It also cuts out a lot of waffle. I know we all think our own ramblings are genius from time to time, but in a limited word count they can be irrelevant, repetitive and therefore dangerous to our marks. Make your point, give some evidence, explain why it’s reliable evidence, and why it’s relevant to your argument. Then, give some contrasting evidence and explain why that one is more or less convincing/reliable. Conclude.
5) It’s OK to disagree!
In fact, when done properly, disagreeing with a well-established source can be a great way to boost your marks. It shows that you are not taken in by ideas just because someone ‘important’ has said them. Seriously, if you don’t think Nero was a bad guy, and you have some solid evidence to prove it, go ahead and shout down those who’ve said otherwise. The key is to back up all your opinions. Even if you agree with an argument, but don’t think an historian has taken it far enough, say it. Explain why you think this. Bam, critical reading of sources ticked off!
Overall, sources can be a sticky mess when not tackled correctly. It’s important to have a wide variety in terms of opinion and publication date, however they still need to be relevant and reliable (even if they’re reliability is how wrong you think they are!). It’s always important to back up your evidence, particularly if you’re disagreeing with others. For this, it’s vital to choose your sources wisely, and I hope that with these tips you will be more confident in doing so!
P.S. If you have your own tried and tested tips for dealing with sources, feel free to leave them below!