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Delaying my updated MLAing

Motel: [on being evicted] Rabbi, we’ve been waiting all our lives for the Messiah. Wouldn’t now be a good time for Him to come?
Rabbi: We’ll have to wait for him someplace else. Meanwhile, let’s start packing.
("Memorable Quotes from Fiddler on the Roof.")

I’ve been waiting for a long time, though not by any kind of legendary biblical measurement.  Nevertheless, seven years is a long time to wait for a sign of official change when you’re talking Web years.

Last week I got the word in the form of a new bible–my long awaited MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th Edition.

But I think I may wait a little longer to spread the word.

For a whole bunch of reasons I am holding off on introducing the new MLA style to my students and teachers.  The big one is that it will take me longer than I thought to develop examples for the new types of material my students are documenting.

Regarding the new bible for documentation, my feelings are kinda mixed.

What I love about the 7th edition:

  • Using italics only for referring to larger works makes life a little easier in a world in which we seldom write papers in longhand.  Underlining looked old fashioned online.
  • I can so much more easily search the online version than the print version.
  • The new 7th edition eliminates the need to include the name of the supplying library for database subscriptions.  This practice drove my students crazy.  Was the source bought by our own library or did it come from our state database suite?
  • I love the focus on process.  The book itself and each of the three sample papers describe a student’s progress through identifying topic, developing thesis, evaluating sources, building a source list, documenting sources.
  • The new edition ackowledge that print is no longer the default medium.
    (MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.
    Print. xvii).

What I don’t love so much:

  • MLA has adopted a URL-optional approach. 

    In the past, this handbook recommended including URLs of Web sources in works-cited-list entries. Inclusion of URLs has proved to have limited value, however, for they often change, can be specific to a subscriber or a session of use, and can be so long and complex that typing them into a browser is cumbersome and prone to transcription errors. Readers are now more likely to find resources on the Web by searching for titles and authors’ names than by typing URLs. You should include a URL as supplementary information only when the reader probably cannot locate the source without it or when your instructor requires it. (MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Print.182)

The URL-optional approach is not going to going to go over big at my school. MLA acknowledges the issue of link rot and our ability to easily locate a document with a Google search. 

But our teachers like having links.  We can more easily check the sources students use. It’s a convenience. 

In fact, it’s a convenience for readers of all sorts. With more of our documents being posted online, it simply makes sense to include URLs as a convenient way for readers to quickly access hyperlinked text.

While link rot may harm a research document (say, a dissertation) with lasting value, links are less likely to rot in the space of the semester-long projects most high school students and undergrads produce.

Another issue is that googling an author and title might not lead the reader to the intended version of a document.  My own articles exist in several iterations and I am certain that is true of fellow Web authors.

Researchers should want readers to access the precise iteration of the document they cite.  We can’t assume a Google search will find the right document version.  And, if that right document or version is a wiki or a blog, then the document will likely be better found with alternate search tools, further complicating an instructor’s work.

I have a feeling instructors here WILL continue to request URLs.

  • Regarding new Web formats: I know I can make up my own examples based on related types of documents following the guidelines in Section 5.6 (MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Print. 181-193), but I was hoping that MLA would explicitly recognize new document formats.  When searched in the electronic version, the words Twitter,YouTube, wiki, Ning, Flickr, e-book turn up no results. The word blog comes up, but with a rather negative association.  E-books are referred to in a variety of ways (including books as digital files) that would present a challenge for students to discover.  CD-ROMs, on the other hand, are mentioned 15 times.

Addressing both the version issue and the need for specific models for quality sources in new formats:

As a part-time academic, I recognize that scholars are beginning to post some of their work in their blogs, that they are beginning to build their work in wikis, that their presentations are as likely to be on Slideshare as they are to be in formally printed and online proceedings.

We are teaching students to evaluate new sources, to look for credibility in Web 2.0 writing. Blogs are written by all types of folks, including experts, scholars, witnesses to the major events of our times, and 5th graders.

Yet the one explicit reference to blogs in the online Handbook guides students away from such resources using a negative example:

Samantha goes to the home page of She cannot find the name of a sponsoring organization; instead, she finds the commercial domain name (it ends with the abbreviation .com) and a list of contributors containing first names only. No editorial guidelines are given, but there is an invitation for anyone to register and become an author on a blog. Samantha sees no evidence that the site is peer-reviewed, so she decides not to use it for her research paper.  ("Step 3, A Search of the Internet." MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Web.)

The book does include one reference to online postings:

Untitled works may be identified by a genre label (e.g., Home page, Introduction, Online posting), neither italicized nor enclosed in quotation marks, in the place where the title goes (see 5.5.8 and 5.7.7–10 for additional guidance on the use of genre labels) (MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Print. 185)

Perhaps it is because the MLA Handbook is supposed to focus on scholarly materials.  Perhaps it is because some of these new types of resources are thought to be ephemeral. Perhaps it is because the audience is expected to make the jump from blog (or online) post to Tweet.  But I was hoping that there’d be a few explicit links and references. I was hoping that if I searched for Twitter tweets, I would be directed to a blog post as a model.

  • I was expecting the book to be more than a Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, that it would be a Handbook for Writers/Producers of Research Projects.  I know it’s not the stated goal of the publication, but my students need guidance as they express the results of their research in multiple formats. I hoped that the new edition would address documentation as students describe their own research in the forms of film, digital storytelling, electronic posters, blog posts, etc.  And so, I will continue to provide my own students with examples of in-project documentation in various media formats.
  • I plan to purchase multiple copies of the blue book, but I was hoping that MLA might be a little generous in posting a bit of its Handbook online for student use. My single copy allows me to exercise only the following permitted uses of the Site and of the MLA’s copyrighted materials:
    • Log in to the Site on a personal computer.
    • Print one copy of any portion of the Site for personal use.
    • Download one copy of each sample paper on a personal computer for personal use. Personal use does not include submitting all or part of a sample paper from the Site for academic credit.
    • Display the Site or portions of it on a screen or monitor for the purpose of face-to-face classroom instruction.
    • Display the Site or portions of it on a monitor in a library for the use of an institution’s librarians as they provide face-to-face reference assistance. ("Terms of Use, Including Privacy Statement." MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Web.)

As I mentioned in a previous post, for now, while I work on updating my own local guide, I am guiding curious students and teachers to:

Slightly disillusioned, I plan to unpack in the fall. 


"Memorable Quotes from Fiddler on the Roof."  Internet Movie Database. N.p. N.d. Web.
        23 Mar. 2009. <>.

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
. 7th ed. New York: MLA, 2009.  Print.

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. MLA. 2009. Web. 23 Mar. 2009. 

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Terry Young says:

    Very interesting…

  2. I was also hoping for more guidance for research projects. I could not find any information on citing sources within a PowerPoint presentation, especially photographs.

  3. Gotta love the italics!
    Just a heads up, the Purdue OWL examples have some minor errors. They use Alfred A. Knopf as the publish in the first citation example. I believe it should be simply Knopf. In another example page numbers are listed as are 116-126, rather than 116-26.

  4. Hmmm…. In response to your expectations on the new MLA handbook I would to inquire as to why you attribute ”

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