MLA International Bibliography in
Academic Libraries Discussion Group

Indexing and Searching Considerations for Interdisciplinary Studies:
The Example of Women's Studies in the MLA International Bibliography

By Natalia Sucre, MLA, 1997


Interdisciplinary studies poses several indexing and searching challenges for a cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural bibliography in the humanities such as the MLA International Bibliography. First, the MLA Bibliography covers three distinct academic fields--literary studies, linguistics, and folklore--as well as related areas of interest that for the most part fit under the rubric of interdisciplinary studies. Within each of these fields and areas, the bibliography includes scholarship on a nd from many languages and national literatures. Thus, the bibliography's indexing vocabulary is more general than it would be in a reference source restricted to a single discipline or cultural context. While such generality can aid in a search on an i nterdisciplinary topic, it also tends to limit the use of specialized vocabulary particular to any given interdisciplinary area. Indexing practices must therefore facilitate the narrowing of searches. Second, many areas of interdisciplinary studies are in relatively early stages of development. The bibliographic representation of these areas changes more frequently than that of more established scholarly fields. Thus, cross-references are especially important in searches on interdisciplinary topics. Finally, the MLA Bibliography indexes documents primarily according to topic rather than approach. Yet users may be more interested in the conceptual framework than in the subject matter of some types of interdisciplinary work. Special strategies must be used to represent and locate such interdisciplinary work. The discussion below sketches how the MLA Bibliography handles each of these challenges using women's studies as an example.

Narrowing a Search

General versus Specific Terms

In the vocabulary of women's studies, already widespread throughout the humanities, distinctions such as those between first-wave feminism and second-wave feminism and between women's liberation movement and women's movement ar e now relatively well-established, especially in American and British contexts. But because the MLA Bibliography is cross-cultural and cross- disciplinary, users should not expect its indexing practices to reflect these distinctions. For example, the indexing term women's liberation movement, which refers to a form of radical feminism that originated in the United States during the mid 1960s, is cross-referenced to the broader term women's movement, as are other terms referring to h istorically specific moments in the women's movement. To find as many references as possible to a particular manifestation of the women's movement, users should search under women's movement and qualify the search with a date and a national litera ture or place specification.

Multiple-Word Subject Terms

For the three months from October 1995 to January 1996, 102 documents in the MLA Bibliography are indexed under the subject term women; for the period from 1981 to the present, there are 7,130 records indexed under women. Clearly, th e term requires qualification to prove useful in a search. The bibliography's controlled vocabulary contains many related multiple-word subject terms: for example, women aborigines, female archetypes, women aristocrats, female characters, women artist s, female figures, women athletes, female film star, women cartoonists, female lover, women clergy, female protagonist, women comedians, female narrator, women composers, female villain, women readers, female audience, women saints, female identity, women university students, female point of view, women workers, female power, women writers, and female subjectivity. It is useful for a researcher to remember that the modifier women generally applies to persons and female to concept s and figures. (The same distinction holds for the modifiers men and male.) Thus users will not find any records under female saints; since saints are persons, the bibliography's preferred term is women saints. A cross-refer ence under female saints directs users to the desired entries.

The bibliography's controlled vocabulary allows nearly infinite additions of terms that include the modifier women. For example, women writers can be further modified to form the terms American women writers, Caribbean women writers, Chr istian women writers, Native American women writers, and so on. A cross- reference suggests how to find such narrower terms.

The bibliography cannot be used to obtain lists of writers, artists, and scholars belonging to a particular category. For example, users will not find the names of Chicana writers cross-referenced under the subject term Mexican American women writers. Nonetheless, the bibliography's indexing practices do make available sets of documents that treat the work of particular groups even when individual documents focus on a single author. For example, if a document discusses only a Zora Neale Hurston novel, but treats her as an African-American woman writer, the subject term African-American women novelists will appear in the description of the document. Thus, users interested in work on African-American women novelists will be able to find th is document and others without searching under author names.

Multiple-Topic Searches

Some bibliographies comparable in scope to the MLA Bibliography, such as the British Humanities Index and the American Humanities Index, use combined topics as subject terms: for example, women and medicine, women and literature, w omen and film. Indexing for these bibliographies is based mainly on key words. By contrast, the MLA Bibliography relies on larger classifying categories such as disciplines, national literatures, time periods, genres, and so on; using combine d topics as subject terms proves either cumbersome or unnecessary.

Several strategies may help MLA Bibliography users research on combined or specialized topics, which are common in interdisciplinary areas such as women's studies. The boolean search options offered on the electronic versions of the bibliography p rovide an excellent means of retrieving documents on a practically infinite set of combined topics. For example, users looking for material on women and medicine in the United States can enter women, medicine, and United States as subject t erms in an electronic search.

For a multiple-topic search to be as successful as possible, users must take into account the effect of the bibliography's classification system on a key word search. Users should keep in mind that each topic of interest may be represented by different s ubject terms, some of which may be shaped by the bibliography's classifying categories. For example, the search described above, using women, medicine, and United States as search terms, might produce records related to folklore and possibl y to linguistics or film. To retrieve records related to literary studies, users should narrow the search with the term American literature or perhaps with other terms such as themes and figures or literary theory and criticism. To gain familiarity with the categories in the bibliography's classifying system, users can refer to the table of contents of the print version.

Enriching a Search

As suggested above, cross-referencing is particularly important in interdisciplinary research. Since the vocabulary of interdisciplinary studies is somewhat unstable, the MLA Bibliography tends to use more near synonyms as subject terms and to lin k terms more profusely in interdisciplinary studies than in other areas. For example, the bibliography's controlled vocabulary includes many terms that refer to relationships among women: for example, women's culture, female community, female-female r elationships, and sisterhood. Users searching under female community will find that the term is linked not just to the broader term community and the narrower term sorority, but also to women's culture and sister hood. A subject term not associated with interdisciplinary studies would not be likely to have so many related terms.

Because many near synonyms are used as subject terms in interdisciplinary studies, documents on a particular topic may be indexed under various related terms. For example, documents relevant to the women's liberation movement may be indexed under radi cal feminism. Thus, users interested in the women's liberation movement should not restrict a search to the preferred, broader term women's movement. The profuse linkage among related subject terms in interdisciplinary studies can help users locate documents that such a limited search would not retrieve: cross-references under feminism provide other possible search terms, including radical feminism. By searching under such terms, users may locate additional documents relevant t o their topic.

Refining a Search

Indexing and Researching an Approach

Interdisciplinary studies and narrower terms such as women's studies are used as subject terms in the bibliography's controlled vocabulary. Documents that treat topics about studies are indexed under women's studies and under either the national literature they discuss or, more often, the scholarly field they concern (e.g., professional topics, literary theory and criticism, history and study of folklore). As noted above, however, documents on interdisciplinary topics may be of interest for their particular approach, and it is hard to represent an approach in indexing. The MLA Bibliography indexes documents primarily by topic, but also by approach. Approaches are indicated by including either an interdisciplinary stu dies subject term (e.g., women's studies, gender studies, gay and lesbian studies) or an approach term (e.g., feminist approach, womanist approach, ecofeminist approach, Marxist approach, new historical approach) in the description. Approac h terms do not appear as subject terms in the print version of the bibliography because too many documents would be listed for each approach; approach terms can be used as subject terms on the electronic version, and they prove helpful for multiple-topic searches in interdisciplinary studies. For example, users seeking documents that discuss women and the visual arts from the point of view of women's studies or feminist theory can search under the subject terms women's studies and feminist appro ach.

Using the Classifying Categories

The print version of the MLA Bibliography uses a system of classifying categories to order entries for documents. Users investigating interdisciplinary topics, including topics in women's studies, may find these categories helpful. Of note for wo men's studies are the categories feminist literary theory and criticism within the broader category literary theory and criticism; feminist film theory and criticism within film theory and criticism; and feminism, femininity, women , and other related subject terms within themes and figures. These categories all appear in the general literature volume of the print version of the bibliography. Many bibliographies comparable in scope to the MLA Bibliography do not represent feminist theory through specific subject terms, much less allot it a category in a general classifying system. Thus, the MLA Bibliography is a particularly good source for references to theoretical work in women's studies.