Documentation in Flux

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As I revised Elements of Argument recently, for the first time I had to take a close look at the new MLA documentation guidelines. I found the use of the new term container a bit clunky, if perhaps useful. I can imagine a group of bibliographical scholars sitting around a conference table saying, "There has to be a better word for the . . . CONTAINER the documented information comes from." Apparently their conclusion was that there isn't. 

I can remember back in the old days holding a book or journal and telling my students, "Give credit to the source that you held in your hands." That seems like an old-fashioned idea these days, indeed. For those of you who have avoided looking too closely at the new MLA,  the container is the book, journal, or magazine that ideas or wording comes from, but it also has its electronic forms. The container can be a web site or an online newspaper or a television series. The MLA was attempting to set up guidelines based on core elements that could be used for bibliographical entries, no matter what the source, rather than depending on numerous examples of any form that source might take. The generic term container makes it easier to provide a consistent format, even though the container varies widely from one citation to the next.


I can understand my students' confusion with the old MLA guidelines regarding how to cite some types of sources. An article, for example, appears in the New York Times, but the student reads it on The article is the same (usually), but the container is different. The availability online  of so many sources is making parenthetical documentation less useful than it used to be because seldom are there page numbers. The line is even less clear, though, when there are, because then we may have a journal article that appeared in hard copy merely reproduced on the screen, page numbers and all. The new MLA doesn't solve that problem. It may help, though, for students to think about which container they accessed. 


Hyperlinks to the sources they used would perhaps make more sense in our digital world. However, sites come and go and change, so a link that works today may not work tomorrow. In preparing essays for inclusion in my textbook, I ironically find myself more and more having to replace hyperlinks with old-fashioned parenthetical citations. 


The changes in the 2016 MLA are an acknowledgment of the complexity of dealing with documentation in a cyber world and a step in the right direction.


About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.