Bibliography v. reference list … just semantics?


So here’s the thing. What’s the difference between a bibliography and a reference list?

I was always taught there was an important difference between a bibliography and a reference list. The reference list is the stuff you actually cite in the paper. The bibliography is all of the books you read, some/a lot of which actually aren’t cited. There are also bibliographies, annotated or not, which are a list of books somebody thinks are the definitive guide to a topic.

I notice that a lot of university guides for students – you know those online how-to-do-academic-work compendia that all undergrads are meant to look at – maintain that distinction. A bibliographic list tells your tutor all the stuff you read, while your references are confined to the things you used. My own university for example says

The term bibliography is the term used for a list of sources (e.g. books, articles, websites) used to write an assignment (e.g. an essay). It usually includes all the sources consulted even if they not directly cited (referred to) in the assignment.

Indeed, as an undergrad history student, many many moons ago, I had to submit both bibliographic and reference lists for assessment purposes. No wonder the difference is cemented into my memory! And as a supervisor I often ask PhDders to send me their bibliographies so I can see what they are reading, and planning to read.

Harvard and APA style guides make the same distinction. A bibliography is the total, the lot, the whole shebang and the reference list the selected, the particular.

However, the definitions that are offered for bibliography and references in dictionaries often conflate the two. References are given as a synonym for a bibliography. A bibliography is defined as the list of actual citations in a text. What’s more, I often see academic writing advice in print and online which also equates the two. Even more important perhaps is the fact that I very often see theses where the reference list is called the bibliography. Does this suggest that supervisors too don’t share views on what the two terms actually mean?

But I realised recently as I blanched at yet another piece of writing advice which referred to a reference list as a bibliography that the question of nomenclature is one of my correctional lexical moments, an instance where I have a kind of visceral red pen compulsion. Right or wrong, convention bound as it probably is, I want to see a reference list called references.

And as something of a justification for that view… a semantic differentiation between the two – the citations versus the total of texts read – does recognise that we usually read a great deal more than we actually cite. Both broad and deep bibliographic reading is essential to get our heads around a field, its debates and its idiosyncrasies. We can’t possibly hope to refer to all of these readings at once – particularly in a word-restricted journal article – but even in the more generous word limits of a thesis.We’ve all generally got much bigger bibliographies than reference lists.  (And, can I just whisper, if we cite everything we have read on a topic it is either a paper which is weighed down with brackets and is just about unreadable, or we just haven’t read enough. )

But perhaps this distinction is just a personal foible. A throwback to wanting correct and absolute writing practice. Or perhaps not. Reference list, bibliography – what’s in a name.