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Category: 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.

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Result lists as a genre of writing

Idea – by me

I’ve been having a bit of an up-and-down teaching term this Fall — some classes going really well and some falling flat — but one thing that I’ve really enjoyed is that so many of the classes I’m working with are in new subject areas for me, or are taking different approaches than I’ve taken before. It’s felt like everything is new, an experiment, and if I look at it in that light I feel just a little better about the term as a whole.

One recent experiment consisted of actually speaking words in a lower level class that I’ve been mulling over off and on for years but have only ever uttered once in an advanced seminar several years ago. And I think it was ok. I think it was worth the few minutes of time it took, and I’ll think about where I can work it into other teaching I do.

The words? “Result lists are a genre like any other genre of reading. They may look different from tool to tool, but they all conform to certain conventions, and you can read a result list like a type of document, applying genre-specific reading strategies just like you’d approach an article differently than a mystery novel.”

The class I was teaching was of a type that I generally really enjoy: teaching students how to read instrumentally in order to do better research. And we talk about different kinds of reading: skimming, deep reading, and reading instrumentally. In lower level classes this generally involves me passing out a short reading (usually a newspaper or magazine article) and having students work together to generate lists of topics, key terms, and names associated with those topics by reading the article carefully. Sometimes I have them do this with the aid of a worksheet and sometimes I just do it with them on the chalk board.

And this time I added reading result lists as a type of reading that has its own specific place in a research strategy. Result lists come in many forms, but they will all help reveal the range of questions authors seek to answer that involve the search terms you use, patterns in authors or publications that revolve around the terms you used, and clues about the vocabulary of your topic which you can then take note of and use to revise your searches. They are highly condensed, jargonized reference “entries” that teach you a lot about patterns of publication, about vocabulary, and about where you can go next with your searching.

In this particular class I didn’t elaborate on speech genres in general, or explain that they’re “relatively stable types of utterances” that operate within a particular context and reflect “specific conditions and goals” (Bahktin 60). I didn’t even indulge in a geeky digression into the ways that “secondary” speech genres “arise in more complex and comparatively highly developed and organized cultural communication” (Bahktin 61-62). Does this remind you of scholarly communication pathways and norms? Disciplinary discourse conventions? Yeah, me too. But in a 45 minute class with first year, first term students I thought maybe Bahktin was a bridge too far.

Even so, understanding result lists in this way has really helped me, over the years, to get away from the frustration of “failed searches” and become far more comfortable with the idea that spending time opening results here and there and quickly gathering vocabulary and a sense of publishing patterns is one of the quickest ways to arrive at useful results, even if it at first feels like taking detours through a swamp full of weeds. I hope it will help those students, too.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1987. “The Problem of Speech Genres.” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Slavic Series. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 60-102.

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Tangible information literacy

Books HD
Photo by Abhi Sharma

One of the professors I work with a lot on campus has me join her American Studies Methods course a couple of times each term she teaches the course. The first time centers around three main questions:

  1. Where does your research question sit within the theory of the field?
  2. Where does the information you’ll need to explore your question sit within the archive of the field? (“Archive” here means the universe of sources useful within the field.)
  3. And how much of the archive of the field is necessary for your purposes?

Last year we had them mind-map their research questions onto the blackboard in among the major topics of American Studies research that they’ve been studying. Then we used these mindmaps as the basis for search strategies for primary and secondary sources.

This year for various reasons we didn’t do a full class on the information literacy of American Studies. Instead, I visited their class for the full class period and participated in their conversations about the two readings assigned for that day, pitching my participation to help draw out the patterns of information use in each of the readings.

What can we tell about the theoretical foundations of the author’s claim based on the bibliography? Who are the major voices the author claims as theoretical kin? What kinds of primary sources appear and how does the author use them? Why these sources and not others?

To help us grapple with the archive of these readings, I spent the morning hunting down every single primary and secondary source that Amy Kaplan used in her article “Manifest Domesticity” (American Literature 70.3 (1998): 581–606) and piled them up on the classroom tables. We had print copies of many of the early 19th century monographs and periodicals that Kaplan marshaled in her readings of the overlap between the rhetoric of empire building and of domesticity. What we didn’t have in print we had in digitized primary source collections, so I could print off a few pages of each. And of the secondary sources we had ready access to all but 2 of the books, one of which could have come over from St. Olaf if I’d planned ahead a little more.

So there we sat, exploring Kaplans scholarship while her archive lay there in front of us for direct exploration, manipulation, and interrogation.

I’m not sure what the students got out of the exercise. I hope they sensed the possibilities for their own research – that writing from 190 years ago is not exotic and out of reach and that the major voices in their field are represented here in our library’s collection. I hope they enjoyed holding paper and ink from the 1830s in their own hands. I especially hope that they sensed the vital research practice of mining other scholars’ bibliographies.

For me, I experienced wonder at just how much is accessible these days even in a curricular collection on a small liberal arts college campus. And I admit that it was a thrill to open those pages and see what other scholars saw, exactly as they saw it.

It certainly wasn’t a traditional library session, but I hope it was as useful. It was certainly fun.

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Library instruction for undergraduate thesis writers

A librarian emailed me to ask what I teach when I teach seniors who are starting to write their senior theses. I realized that I haven’t written some of this here, yet, so here’s my answer to that librarian only slightly edited.

The pre-thesis session changes a bit every time because I start it with time to go around the table, have each student tell me and the group their thesis topic, and also tell us at least one thing about the research process that they’re concerned about. (This wouldn’t work for majors in departments with departmental cultures that prevent revealing weaknesses, but it works quite well for my English and American Studies and Language students.) For American Studies students I also ask them what they remember from our session the previous spring, since I get to see them at the end of their Junior year and the beginning of their Senior year. If they look at me blankly, I’ll cover that stuff again only more quickly, and if they remember a lot, I’ll add in some razzle dazzle advanced resource that will be new to them.

Basically, based on that conversation, I prioritize the rest of the hour.

There are always a few things I want to get to, of course, but luckily the students nearly always bring these things up, so the whole session usually feels like their idea even though I can usually predict at least 75% of the content.

So, what are some of these things? Many of them are covered in this old blog post of mine: http://pegasuslibrarian.com/2012/12/what-do-i-teach-anyway.html The Circular Research Process is particularly important for research at this level, as is Instrumental Reading. In addition, I nearly always talk about managing your research riffing off of the “Keeping Track” tab of their subject research guides for each major http://gouldguides.carleton.edu/content.php?pid=58440&sid=3083204

I also make sure that they either hear or remember conversations we’ve had about how bibliography is not just an alphabetical list. Instead, it’s a mind map of the scholarly conversation that the author was joining. They should get used to looking for clues about major players and how claims can be built and what counts as evidence in this conversation, etc.

Two things that come up a lot are appropriate topic scope and how to know when you’re done researching. For the first I often use the analogy of a cropped photograph for a good topic: focused in on the important parts and only gesturing toward the rest of the things that you mentally know are part of the original scene but are cut out of the cropped image. We’ll also talk about how to combine related bodies of scholarship into your new, combined topic (students often aren’t very good at thinking about related research as useful to their new claims). And as far as when you know you’re done? Being true to your cropped image and then running continually into bibliographies that list people you’ve already read.

I will always take them through the advanced research features and search strategies of the one or two databases most likely to be core to their disciplinary work. If there’s time, I’ll show them how to do cited reference searching using both Web of Science and Google Scholar. Depending on the group I’ll also do a more in-depth look at either Zotero or Mendeley, whichever the group votes up.

I also give them a “Subversive Handout” which lists questions they can come talk to me about later, and I take them through scheduling an appointment with me and give them some hints about what might be good points in the research process to sit down with me (i.e. when they’re testing topic feasibility, when their just starting to explore, just before their proposals are due, and any time they feel stuck).

Clearly, I don’t to every piece of this! But these are the things that I’m prepared to do and that I choose from during that initial conversation with the group.

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