Searching the MLA International Bibliography

By Diaz, Karen R.; Alexander, Harriet | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Searching the MLA International Bibliography


Diaz, Karen R., Alexander, Harriet, Reference & User Services Quarterly


All, Nothing, or Something Between?

Electronic databases are in large part based on print indexes and bibliographies that may or may not translate well into electronic format. Historical changes in the structure of the Modern Language Association (MLA) International Bibliography and present and past editorial practices make its electronic form a difficult one from which to retrieve the specialized topics frequently assigned to high school seniors and college students participating in lower level English composition and literature courses.

This article establishes the history of the Bibliography, itemizes the difficulties inherent in typical keyword Boolean searches, and suggests alternative routes open to students and librarians directed to use the Bibliography.--Editor

Many academic librarians and librarians in large public libraries are learning that public use of electronic databases is a mixed blessing. Public expectations are high. All databases are full-text. All information is available on the Internet. The library owns every issue of every publication indexed for immediate public use. If the library doesn't have it, then with the help of overnight mail and faxes, it should be available for use the next day. Keyword and Subject are synonymous terms. The same search strategy is effective in all databases. The use of natural language, as in the phrase "violence in the public schools," will return all relevant, and only relevant, listings.

Perhaps the worst problem lies not in the ignorance of the general public, however, but in the concept held by those who engineer and produce the databases that simply computerizing a database--whether it is a bibliography, index, or full-text--is always going to create a better method of retrieving relevant material. What can be ignored is the fact that much record enhancement may be required to allow for better retrieval in a computerized environment. An example of the searching problems that can happen as a result of inadequate enhancement is the MLA International Bibliography. The following is a point-by-point illustration of why the structure of the MLA International Bibliography does not convert well to computerization, and why this conversion causes problems for lower level students.

History of the Print Version

The print bibliography began in 1921 as a listing of research in the field of literature by American scholars. The MLA confined itself to literatures of currently written/spoken languages; therefore, works of classical literature (ancient Greek and Latin) were not included. Listings were limited and the division of the Bibliography into the language of origin of the literature appeared suitable. A scholar of the literature of France would, in all probability, wish to see what was being done on French literature as well as the works of Dumas or Flaubert. From 1921 through 1925, the Bibliography was written in an essay format. In 1926, an outline order of listings was adopted.

First Reorganization

In 1956, the Bibliography became an international listing, no longer confining itself to the work of American scholars. The section of Festschriften and Other Analyzed Collections preceded the more specific classified entries. Individual essays in these collections were listed in their normal order in the classification scheme, the entry referring back to this section by means of the number of the book's entry in the Festschriften section under "F" [F 22]. Abbreviations developed for the periodicals listed in the Bibliography were so cryptic that use of the abbreviations list at the beginning of the volume was not a mere safeguard but an absolute necessity. Entries for a specific author were listed under the author's name only--whether the essays dealt with their work in general or with individual works. The only exception, other than for anonymous works such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was Shakespeare, whose listing was separated from that of other Renaissance authors, and for whom entries for specific works were listed under their individual titles, Romeo and Juliet, Venus and Adonis, Julius Caesar, and so on. …

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