The MLA International Bibliography™ and Its People

Librarianship | April 05, 2017

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When the MLA International Bibliography™ was first created in the early 1920s, it relied on the efforts of a team of enthusiastic volunteers to produce the listing of scholarly publications in literature and language. While their endeavors endured for many decades, in 1980 the MLA realized it needed to maintain a dedicated full-time staff to provide comprehensiveness to the ever-increasing scholarship.

The MLA International Bibliography is now created by Modern Language Association’s Bibliographic Information Services Department. Our staff of 28 is divided into three groups — administrative, indexing and thesaurus. Education is a prerequisite (most bibliographers have advanced degrees in their field of expertise). Admins are responsible for everything from acquisitions, metadata preparation and record management to tutorial development. The indexers review every publication analyzing the nature of the material. The thesaurus editors provide quality assurance and maintain both names and subject thesauri.

The MLA staff also works with 100+ field bibliographers, who make a very important contribution to the database — representing about 15% of our records. Some have been with MLA for more than 20 years covering journals, books, essay collections and monographs. We are very appreciative for all their passion and enthusiasm and recently started an oral history project to capture their attitudes about the Bibliography and the MLA. The comments have been heartwarming and worth sharing.

Susan Oliver, University of Essex lecturer, considers being a field bibliographer enormously helpful in her career. “I index journals mainly that deal with late eighteenth and nineteenth century literature, and I’ve read articles that would change the way I think about what I’m writing. The training that I received while I was a bibliography fellow has also been very helpful in terms of research methods — and I hope that I’ve passed that knowledge on to students as I’ve developed my teaching career. As a member of the bibliography advisory board, I have been in touch with people who are working from a number of different positions, librarians, other academics from different systems than the one that I work in. And it’s a tremendous forum for thinking about what end users want from the bibliography, and how I can contribute to that. I’ve been very fortunate to be involved.”

Jason McEntee, University of South Dakota, suggested that “to be, completely transparent, I had no idea what it entailed. Typically, as academics, we see the MLA bibliography in our research, but being able to kind of flip and go behind the screen and realize what goes into making those fields actually work — that was pretty exciting to me. I work in American Literature and Film Studies, but I also have sub-specialty areas too like rhetoric and composition. I’ve also done gender studies, genre studies, war and trauma studies, television and pop culture. I’m reading the publication in two particular ways — as someone who’s going to enter it but also I try to invent myself as someone who’s going to do research on this topic. What would I find useful when I’m entering search terms if I wanted to write an essay on Tyler Perry. It’s fun. I have to admit I actually enjoy it quite a lot.”

Jim Kelly, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has been a field bibliographer since 1979. He started typing sheets using carbon forms. “We would just type out a very skeletal entry and mail them every so often.” Jim stated, “I think it’s been essential to be a field bibliographer, not only because it connects me very officially and intimately with the world of literature, but also because it, in a way, legitimizes my position as a liaison of departments. And to have this as the bona fide in your credentials certainly means that you’re accorded a kind of respect, I think, for being a part of the overall process of scholarship. And, as well, you can become conversant in fields where you had, perhaps, just a casual interest.”

When asked about her involvement in the bibliography, Lila Harper, lecturer at Central Washington State University, and distinguished bibliographer with more than 20 years of service, remarked, “It’s been helpful in my career, but it has also been helpful in my mental outlook by allowing me not to be weighed down by little issues going on at campus. It’s allowed me to maintain a sense of respect for what I do because when I submit an entry on the Web site a thank you comes back. And I can feel at the end of the day, no matter what’s happened, I’ve done something useful for the profession. I have made sure that some researcher’s work has been placed into the database so those looking for that topic can find it. It keeps [me] a little more optimistic day by day.”

Whether employees of the MLA or volunteers, we all share a dedication to helping researchers find relevant publications to their scholarship.

To learn more about our field bibliographer program and related fellowship opportunities, visit us at https://www.mla.org/Publications/MLA-International-Bibliography/About-the-MLA-International-Bibliography/MLA-Field-Bibliographers.

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