The MLA International Bibliography Today: An Interview with Mary Onorato

Library Resources | Mary Onorato| February 06, 2020

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EBSCO interviews Mary Onorato, Director of Bibliographic Information Services and Publisher at MLA International Bibliography.

In 2017, we featured a blog post about the evolution of the MLA International Bibliography.  Mary Onorato now heads the department at the MLA that creates the MLA Bibliography as well as the MLA Directory of Periodicals; the MLA International Bibliography with Full Text was released in 2018; and the team at the Modern Language Association has introduced popular online resources that teach students about the research process and save librarians and faculty from having to create these on their own.

We spoke with Onorato at the Charleston Conference about the bibliography’s content, staff, teaching tools and integration into the classroom:

The MLA International Bibliography is well known in the fields of language and literature. What are some of their lesser-known subject areas?

Today’s MLA Bibliography is an excellent resource for research not only in literature and language, but in linguistics, folklore, dramatic arts (theater, film, television, radio, opera), rhetoric, and writing studies. For the first 45 years of its existence, from 1921 to 1966, the bibliography focused on literature and language, so it’s understandable if many people don’t know to what extent its scope has expanded.

Folklore and dramatic arts (theater, film, radio, and opera) have been covered from the start, when studied from a literature or language perspective. Linguistics became an explicit area of coverage in 1967. In 1990, to boost our coverage of folklore materials, we began working with the Folklore Institute and Indiana University, a partnership that still continues. In the late 1990s, with the help of a Mellon grant, we were able to increase our coverage of Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish languages and literatures, as well as adding scholarship on the teaching of language, literature, rhetoric, and composition. The rhetoric and composition portion of the 1999 bibliography was completed in cooperation with the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC).

We’ve also engaged in a considerable amount of retrospective indexing, so even in fields added during the second half of our history, researchers can find resources dating to the 1920s or earlier.

The bibliography is known for the quality of its indexing. Where does that indexing come from?

Our in-house staff of professional indexers, assisted by a network of volunteer field bibliographers, rely on the classification system and controlled vocabulary within the MLA Thesaurus to categorize and describe the publications they review.

All items are examined by real people who hold advanced degrees in their fields. They ensure that scholars who search the bibliography retrieve only results that are highly relevant to their interests.

Also, unlike other research databases that merely provide lists of keywords, the MLA International Bibliography uses words and phrases to connect subject descriptors and express relationships between them. Thus, each bibliography record presents a concise, telegraphic description of the content of a publication.

For example, an article that compares Shakespeare on the stage to Shakespeare on the page might have a national literature classification:

Subject Literature: English literature
Period: 1500-1599
Primary Subject Author: Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)
Primary Subject Work: Richard II (1595)
Genre: history
Followed by an indexing “string:” role of text; compared to performance; refutes theories of Levin, Richard Louis (1922-2009); Taylor, Gary Lynn (1953- )
Note that the role indicators “role of,” “compared to,” “refutes,” and “theories of” make all the difference in properly rendering the gist of the indexed publication.

You mention Field Bibliographers. Can you tell us more about them?

The field bibliographers who volunteer to work with us are MLA members from around the world -- university faculty members, independent scholars, librarians, and graduate students.  Indexing for the MLA International Bibliography requires the bibliographer to provide accurate bibliographic information for each document and to assign descriptive terms drawn from our controlled vocabulary. Thanks to a new Web-based production platform we launched last year, field bibliographers work virtually alongside MLA staff members and can communicate with them directly about the work. Their work is extremely valuable to us, allowing us to cover materials to which we otherwise lack access.

Our field bibliographers cite a number of advantages to doing this work. They are, of course, providing a service to the profession (recognized by being listed on the MLA Web site and via an annual letter to their supervisor) that will have an impact on language and literature scholarship for years to come. But they also find they deepen their knowledge of their specialties, discover new areas of inquiry, and sharpen their research skills. Several of our field bibliographers talk about their experiences in a video available on Vimeo.

The MLA also offers a field bibliography fellowship program. The deadline for applying this year is April 1. I hope interested readers will check it out.

All items are examined by real people who hold advanced degrees in their fields. They ensure that scholars who search the bibliography retrieve only results that are highly relevant to their interests. 

The MLA creates quite a breadth of tools for educators, like lesson plans and the free online mini-course that teaches the research process. Can you tell us about those?

We started making short (three to five -minute) video tutorials in 2013, because we kept hearing from instructional librarians that they had so little time in their instruction sessions that they couldn’t cover the bibliography in depth. We also knew that many librarians were making their own instructional videos to reinforce their instruction and to provide resources students could consult anytime from anywhere, but with so many databases to cover, it was a challenge for them to keep their videos updated. We’ve been delighted to see links to the tutorials appearing on library Research Guides.

Each tutorial focuses on a particular aspect of using the MLA Bibliography, such as the difference between a keyword (basic) search and a subject search, using the Names as Subjects feature, or Peer Review. We also have tutorials that focus on doing research in particular subject areas, such as folklore, linguistics, dramatic arts, rhetoric, and writing studies. Some of our tutorials are available in languages other than English. Links to all the tutorial videos are available at

The tutorials see a lot of use, but we wanted to do more with them. Two members of our staff with experience teaching research on the college level, Farrah Lehman Den and Angela Ecklund, collaborated to design a free, 90-minute, five-unit online course that guides students through the process of using the bibliography. In each unit, students watch one or two videos, then answer a series of questions reinforcing what they’ve learned. They are even required to perform complex searches in the database to find some of the answers! We’ve had positive feedback from both students and instructors, especially on the active aspect of the course and the badges that certify completion of each unit and the full course.  

In closing, is there anything else you think people should know about the MLA International Bibliography and its focus moving forward?

The bibliography has thrived in its nearly 100-year history by continually evolving to meet the needs of its end users. That kind of agility seems to become more important by the day, so researchers can expect to see regular enhancements and improvements as well as the introduction of new services.

We’ve just moved to a new production platform that will make much of this possible. For instance, at the end of last year we added a Works as Subjects search to complement our Names as Subjects and Thesaurus (Terms as Subjects) searches, and we’re gradually linking character names to works, so that end users can find a title in the Works Search and drill down to select a particular character to search on. We’re looking at ways we might make our metadata available for digital research projects, as the bibliography is not only a research tool, but a rich dataset that could be mined for insights into the history of literary scholarship.

We’re also working to expand our great team of volunteer field bibliographers, especially in terms of international coverage. The new production platform is Web-based, which means our field bibliographers can now work directly alongside our in-house staff--in a virtual sense--as they index materials. This will provide a much more engaging and user-friendly experience for our field bibliographers, and we hope this will encourage even more scholars to contribute to the profession in this way.

But I think the most important thing for our end users to know, whether they are students or faculty, independent scholars or librarians, is that there is a team of real live people behind the bibliography, dedicated to serving the humanities community. We love hearing from the people who use the products we create. So, if you have a suggestion about features or services, or you know of a title we should cover, or if you encounter a problem using the database, let us know at! We do respond, and we’ll be happy to hear from you.

Watch the webinar for more details about the course “Understanding the MLA International Bibliography” and the ways it is used in instruction.

If you are interested in a free trial of the MLA International Bibliography with Full Text, please contact your EBSCO representative, or contact EBSCO online to request a trial.

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Mary Onorato
Director of Bibliographic Information Services and Publisher, MLA International Bibliography

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