Angela Gibson talks about the new MLA Handbook

Gibson Headshot CMOSAlthough the various academic style guides are sometimes seen as competitors, the editors here at Chicago tend to see us all as more like extended family. The APA Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association and the MLA Handbook of the Modern Languages Association are both widely used by scholars. The former prevails in the social and behavioral sciences; the latter in the humanities. Chicago style is used by scholars in many fields as well as by publishers outside academe.

Today CMOS talks with Angela Gibson, associate director of scholarly communication and head of book and online publications at the Modern Language Association, about the newest edition of MLA Handbook.

CMOS: What would you describe as the most significant change from the 7th to the 8th edition, and how will this change affect the way writers and readers use MLA?

AG: Using the new MLA style does not involve learning a specialized language or code so much as it does learning a method. Writers are no longer asked to start the process of documenting a source by identifying the publication format of a work when creating a works-cited-list entry. Instead of looking at a source and deciding if it’s a book or an article or a podcast, writers using MLA style now consult a single template for citing any kind of source.

The template lists what we call “core elements”—facts common to most works, such as author, title, and publication date—which are assembled in a specific order. We’ve also built optional elements into the style so that writers can tailor the style to their needs. Also new is the concept of a container: when the source being documented forms part of a larger whole, the larger whole can be thought of as a container that holds it.

We have to approach citation differently because the web has changed content delivery.

Once the method is learned, we hope that it will become intuitive for writers, allowing them, as they credit the work of others, to focus not on format but on what matters: their writing.

Another change is that we’re putting some material, such as our guidelines for formatting research papers, online for free at the MLA Style Center. So the print book now has an online companion.

CMOS: Why was it important to you to rethink the way we approach citation, rather than simply adjust the product—the citation—itself?

MLAhandbook8thedAG: Simply put: the Internet. We have to approach citation differently because the web has changed content delivery. The MLA wanted to account for the relation between physical works (print, audiovisual, performance, etc.) and their online counterparts in a way that neither flattened web versions into mere analogs of physical sources nor treated online sources as special cases when, in fact, they have become commonplace in research.

We wanted to give writers the ability to show the migration of sources from one medium to another—a print book might be digitized on HathiTrust, for example, or a poem originally on a blog might be printed in an anthology. We felt that we had the opportunity to go beyond adjusting the citation itself on a format-by-format basis and to develop a system of documentation that encouraged writers to evaluate their sources in a holistic way.

That said, we did make changes to works-cited-list entries, by simplifying punctuation, minimizing abbreviations, and building in optional elements for the needs of advanced researchers.

CMOS: Can you tell us a little bit about your behind-the-scenes process? How did your editors determine which aspects of style to modify?

AG: Once we decided to develop the new style, we convened a working group of MLA editors (many of whom had experience teaching in higher education). Questioning everything about our previous system of documentation forced us to think carefully about what is fundamental to identifying and citing sources.

To test our assumptions, we then found difficult works to cite. Along the way, we found some fantastic materials—a digitized recipe from 1922 for Eggs Sir Walter Scott comes to mind (no one, alas, tried to actually make that dish)—and had some abstract discussions about the nature of sources. Throughout the process, we did everything we could to determine where writers might get stuck, and we developed solutions.

CMOS: Who do you think about most when crafting your style guidelines: The writer (and which writer)? The reader? The teacher? How do you keep multiple interests in mind?

AG: We knew that the guidelines needed to work for editors, students, scholars, professional writers, teachers, and librarians. Thus we conducted surveys of all these groups and did user testing to get feedback. We also thought a lot about our own experiences, not just as editors but also as scholars, teachers, and students.

We wanted not only to offer writers a basic method for documenting their sources but also to create a reference that writers could come back to repeatedly.

Your question about the reader is particularly important. We finally decided that streamlining works-cited-list entries made it easier for readers to parse basic information about the sources used.

We also considered the needs of the person reading our handbook. We wanted not only to offer writers a basic method for documenting their sources but also to create a reference that writers could come back to repeatedly. Thus the first part of the book lays out the basic method in a readable and approachable way, and the second half, formatted in numbered sections like a manual, offers in-depth mechanical details; the two sections are cross-referenced.

CMOS: How does the new MLA Handbook help us deal with the rapidly changing nature of the online world? For instance, URLs that become defunct or end up behind pay walls, new platforms for viewing information, articles that are taken down, new ways of navigating different applications? Can any citation style really keep up with all these changes?

AG: The new MLA style gives writers the ability to cite a source regardless of changes to the publication platform. A poem might be delivered orally at an event, then tweeted by a listener; those tweets might then be collected on Storify, and that version might be printed in an anthology, which is then digitized by Google Books. The new style recognizes that there’s something integral about the poem (the content) but also unique about each method of access (the container).

Documentation has two goals: to help readers reproduce research and to testify to the veracity of that research. A performance is an ephemeral event, but a writer still might need to document it. A typescript in a private collection might not be accessible to most readers, but it still might need to be documented. In any case, the goal of a system of documentation is not to ensure the enduring availability of a source.

URLs are a problem, yes, but the teachers and librarians we heard from were adamant that they wanted a provision for including them. When a URL cannot be used to access a source, it still says, “I was here” and provides readers with information.

CMOS: Can you give an example of a new media form that is hard to cite? What makes it difficult to cite? How would you cite it according to the 8th edition?

AG: E-books seem especially difficult to cite, because the nature of the source is hard to discern. An e-book is often based on a print version, so it’s easy to conflate the two. An e-book, moreover, is a type of file (e.g., EPUB), which is obscured by its strong association with the vendor selling it and the (dedicated) device on which it is read. The reading device controls how the file is displayed; for example, how many screens it takes to view the equivalent of a single print page can depend on a user’s font-size settings. That’s a lot to have to understand!

In the MLA Handbook’s list of core elements, you would consider the type of e-book you consulted a version that is part of the second container:

MLA Handbook. 8th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2016. Kindle ed.

When a writer cites an e-book in the text, we advise against using device-specific numbering systems. In section 3.3.3, we offer suggestions for alternative ways to identify the parts of a work.

We realize that these changes come with a learning curve—which means work—but we believe that the new style will ultimately reward this work by being easier to use in the long run.

CMOS: Do you foresee problems with or resistance to some of the changes you’ve made? Where do you think most (if any) resistance will come from? Why?

AG: We realize that these changes come with a learning curve—which means work—but we believe that the new style will ultimately reward this work by being easier to use in the long run. We’re especially concerned with supporting librarians and teachers who are preparing new pedagogical materials. This spring, I’ve been working with four instructors at the City University of New York’s Queens College who are using the handbook in class and creating resources to make the transition easier. We’ll be publishing these resources on the MLA Style Center. The classes at Queens College indicate that the transition will be well worth the trouble: students are finding the new MLA Handbook easy to use, and the instructors have found it useful and even thought-provoking.

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