A Librarian Reads the News

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In my classroom...

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.

Plagiarism as a construct

copypasteA student recently spent some time tearing his hair out in my office because he was really really worried about the possibility that he might inadvertently plagiarize his sources and therefore fail his course. Meanwhile, a group of faculty in a recent workshop worried that their students routinely failed to quote, summarize, synthesize, and cite in proper measure. And every year our Information Literacy in Student Writing assessment project reveals that our sophomores do a good but not great job of knowing when their readers could use some more clues about their sources.

And on the one hand, everyone kind of nods and says, “Yeah, students these days.” But I think that we’re at least as much of the problem.

Lots of academic librarians (and disciplinary faculty) deal heavily in the world of plagiarism detection and anti-plagiarism instruction, but I think long habit and acculturation has made a lot of us feel like plagiarism is an objective thing with rules that everyone agrees on. You don’t use passages in your writing that other people have already used; you don’t pass off other people’s ideas as your own. If you do these things you are either ignorant or bad, or both. Done.

While college policies make it sound like a concrete thing called plagiarism is forbidden, in real life there are a whole lot of circumstances where those rules just don’t seem to fit very well, or where they’re applied one way in one classroom and another way in another classroom. What do you do about writing that results from thoughts developed over the course of class discussion or long conversations? What about the world outside of academic writing, where sharing and re-purposing may be the rule rather than the crime? What about all the genres of writing assigned in classrooms that mimic genres outside of academia and that therefore don’t have the same norms built around them?

Similarly, librarians and faculty either “care about citation” or “don’t care about citation,” but we also tend to link plagiarism and citation as almost one-to-one topics when really citation is about so very much more than just the presence or absence of plagiarism. The complex interplay between what counts as evidence and what counts as proper community participation lead to different norms even within academia. For example, in Lit studies, individual words are the evidence, so quoting individual words is every bit like reporting the response rates on a survey in the social sciences. In other disciplines this kind of quoting is frowned on as “over-citation” and a lack of synthesis. In computer science, there’ll be different rules for your classroom work and your industry work because using other people’s code functions fundamentally differently in an individual competence environment than it does in a development team. Anthropologists tend not to cite each other very much, and historians tend to value rich tapestries of citation functioning as almost a parallel narrative to the author’s work. These rules are not self-evident or consistent, but they are vitally important in their own contexts. Is it any wonder that students are confused?

So my job as a Disciplinary Discourse Mediator is to figure out what the rules are in my departments, why they are that way, and then to help students see the norms that they will be expected to conform to. More than that, my job is to alert students to the importance of figuring out what the rules are for any community they participate in, because the community will value these norms deeply but may express them vaguely (if at all), and when they do talk about they they’ll probably do so as if these are self-evident practices or even a matter of basic human decency.

Right now my strategy has been pretty subtle for the most part, framing any conversations about citation or academic honesty in terms of community norms and (when the situation seems to call for it) explaining some aspect of the connection between the norm and its community. For the rare people who are actually interested, I point them toward the work of Ken Hyland and all the various studies he did on disciplinary practices of quotation and attribution. But I always wonder if there’s something better I could do to usefully problematize the monolithic definition of plagiarism and its strangle-hold on the topic of citation while at the same time actually improving students’ abilities to detect and mimic the practices of the communities they participate in.


Privacy and Caring: entanglements

Image licensed for reuse from Pexels.

There have been a few points lately where I’ve wished it didn’t feel like a violation of professional ethics to step out of my service character for a while and be a whole human with the person I’m helping. There are plenty of times when a research consultation turns into a something more personal, sure, but for me these have been times when the patron opens up voluntarily without me initiating that aspect of the conversation.

But I’ve also worked with people who were clearly not ok, who may have even wanted me to show that I’m not oblivious to their struggle and open that door. But I’ve felt that if I did so I’d be crossing a privacy line that’s there for a reason in libraries, and that I value deeply. Information seeking is a time of vulnerability already, and it’s drummed into us in library school that if we value intellectual freedom (and we do!) we must also value and fight for patron privacy protections — even protections from ourselves. Our professional organizations put a lot of thought into codes of professional ethics for exactly this reason. I don’t tell professors which of their students I’ve met with, I don’t share what I learn about people based on the questions they ask, I don’t pry into people’s motivations for studying what they study beyond what I need to know to help them find information, and I don’t ask “why do you come here all the time” to the guest patrons that come back over and over (even though I’m extremely curious).

Besides, what if I get it wrong and the person really doesn’t want me to say “You seem like you’re in a lot of pain right now. Are you ok?” What if stepping out of the professional and into the personal makes them wish they’d never asked for my help? What if opening that door makes the library seem less welcoming rather than more? Sometimes keeping things utterly professional is the best way to show that you care.

And maybe I’m over-thinking this. Re-reading the library Code of Ethics it says, “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.” So that really doesn’t preclude me from being a whole human when my concern isn’t about the information sought or retrieved — when my concern is for the human behind the information need. So maybe outside of the actual information need, seeking, and retrieval, maybe this is just like any other interaction between two humans, where I have to figure out what you’re ok talking about, and vise versa.

‘Tis a conundrum.

Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition, for EndNote and Zotero

I haven’t tested it extensively yet, but Zotero has released an updated Chicago style. I see that my version of Zotero automatically updated itself to include this new style, but if yours doesn’t for whatever reason you can always load it from the Zotero Style Repository.

Meanwhile, EndNote hasn’t yet released Chicago 17, so I spent some time this week developing that. Here’s a zip folder with an EndNote style for Notes & Bibliography and another style for Author-Date. In the style description for each one, I’ve also added some help text for how to manage a couple of things that weren’t very straightforward in the EndNote style coding. Feel free to use, share, and improve upon these styles.

As always, if you notice something that can be improved or that I got wrong, please let me know!