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What advanced researchers need to know about using the MLA International Bibliography

I live and breathe the MLA International Bibliography. I’m liaison to literature departments, language departments, and linguistics, so it’s pretty much home base for me. And using it is one of the reasons I’m very very grateful to have taken some cataloging/indexing courses while getting my library degree. I will never have the skills necessary to be a cataloger/indexer (those people are amazing!), but a few years into teaching the MLA-IB I realized that one of those pesky rules that I hadn’t quite grasped was completely ruling my chances of success in that database. This is still very much a librarians’ database, and it’s the only database where I find it important to explain its history to my upper level students so that they can have any chance of mining its treasures.

Three pieces of history matter a lot for this database:

  • indexing rules
  • the long legacy of the print index
  • and the almost complete lack of abstracts in the index.

Remember back in indexing class when people dozed off while the professor said something about “aboutness” and about balancing that with local policies about how many indexing terms to assign to any individual item? And remember how, back in the days of the print index, every item had to be listed under the subject headings it was assigned, resulting in increased use of paper directly proportional to the number of subjects it got? I don’t know the MLA’s internal policies on numbers of subjects, but I do know that indexers have it deeply ingrained that they are to assign the fewest number of terms that most completely describe the piece. Every term assigned should describe the full work (its “aboutness”) rather than just parts of the work, and there really shouldn’t be more than a few terms from the same term hierarchy level on any item. The reasoning being that if you need, say, 5 sub-terms from the hierarchy to describe the work, then really you should just use the next broader term because clearly that term is better at expressing the work’s aboutness. Historically, adding additional terms was a very real, practical matter of the physics and economics of publishing, and even now there’s a limit to how many terms it’s feasible to attach to any given record.

And sure, these things exist for most other indexes that have a long history, but the MLA-IB exacerbates all this by mostly not including abstracts. So people can’t kind of muddle through on keyword searching as much because there are just so many fewer words involved in the first place. Not much of a safety net. Not only that, but high end modern systems (like Google) have background thesauri so that if someone types in “heart attack” it’ll say, “Oh, that’s the same is myocardial infarction, so I’ll return those results, too, and maybe this person is confused about the exact cause of the heart attack, so let’s throw in some information about arterial sclerosis.” (They hire computational linguists for a reason! Also, sometimes I hate this “help” so very much, but that’s a rant for a different day — basically I want it to know when to do it and when not to do it.) So that’s even more safety nets. But back in the MLA-IB, lacking all these safety nets, people really have to pay attention to the indexing in a very literal way.

Here’s how you can see that playing out. Search for “Woolf, Virginia” as a subject in the MLA-IB. You’ll get several thousand results because scholars love to study her work. Now, the first thing to note is that (as we all know) works that simply mention her somewhere in the argument won’t list her as a Subject. She gets listed if the full work’s aboutness depends on her. So that’s already a caveat to note for future search strategies.

But let’s say you really want works that are really ABOUT Virginia Woolf, and you would like to explore the scope of what people have written about gender and her work. That’s pretty typical, right? She’s a cornerstone of feminist/queer literary criticism for a reason. But if you search for the Subject “Woolf, Virginia” and then AND in the keyword “gender” you get 250 results. So I tell students to use their critical thinking skills and think about this result list. Is it really likely that less than 4% of literary criticism addresses Virginia Woolf’s depictions of gender? No, it is not very likely. Not likely at all. So this is where those indexing rules kick in.

If the indexer decided that the work was about gender – nothing more specific than that – then the indexer would assign that subject heading. But scholars are usually much more specific than that. They narrow their topics. They write about Virginia Woolf’s depiction of women, men, boys, girls, masculinity, femininity, sex, sexuality, gender, misogyny, ….. So only if a work of scholarship dealt significantly with several of those narrower terms would the indexer move up the hierarchy to “gender.” Relatively rare, right? So the way to get around this is to search for narrower terms ORed together (I sometimes call this “teaching the computer what I mean by gender”). And remember to OR in some narrower terms that are the opposite of the main topic, too. So if I’m interested in the depiction of femininity, articles on masculinity can be almost equally useful, or they can point me to useful literature through their bibliographies.

One more thing to note: this applies to authors and their works as well. If you’re searching for a particular poem, you can OR together the poem and the name of the collection it was originally published with (if applicable) and the name of the poet if the previous two don’t pull in enough results, or OR together specific shakespeare tragedy play names if you’re interested in Shakespearean tragedy, or specific European country names plus “Europe.” You get the idea. The MLA-IB is not a database that functions in a post-boolean, single search box world.

Which brings us to taking notes about terms associated with your topic. This is just utterly and completely necessary if you’re going to spend time in the MLA-IB. As you’re reading and searching, keep adding to your list of words associated with your topic and play around with those in your searches. And watch bibliographies for useful new vocabulary, because unlike search (which is just matching letters-in-a-row in a very, very literal way), bibliographies are compiled by humans who know the field and can tell if a work is related by more than just pure letter-matching.

For really advanced students starting long-term research, this is where I teach them how to save searches and do advanced searches that link previous searches. So say you spent a really long time developing an extensive ORed together “definition” of what you mean by “gender.” Save that search. Then you can go into your search history and AND it together with other topics (searches for Mrs. Dalloway, maybe, or To the Lighthouse). That way you can pretty efficiently explore how your broad topic looks when applied to various literary works or genres or themes or whatever.

Three final mini-tips, especially for foreign language literature:

  1. The MLA-IB doesn’t parse accent marks well (they were entered in various encodings over the years, if entered at all), so you pretty much always get better results if you leave them out.
  2. Translated works are indexed under their translated name and their original name. Find that original name and do your subsequent searches using that original name as a subject. If things seem inconsistent, try ORing together both names.
  3. Don’t want just things that are ABOUT Virginia Woolf, but also anything that mentions her? That’s when you skip out of the MLA-IB into a full text search system like JSTOR or Project Muse. No one tool can do it all.

So there. That’s pretty much my one area of “expertise” as a librarian for literature. So now you know all my secrets.

3 thoughts on “What advanced researchers need to know about using the MLA International Bibliography

  1. This is great and useful, and you’ve been more organized and succinct than I can ever be off the cuff. I may assign this post as a class reading for some of the upper-level and grad students here!

  2. Pingback: Information Architecture, from information about architecture – Pegasus Librarian

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