Book Reviews

Elizabeth Brookbank and H. Faye Christenberry. MLA Guide to Undergraduate Research in Literature. New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America, 2019. 137p. Paper, $16.00 (ISBN 9781603294362). LC 2019011165.

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Over the decades, the Modern Language Association has consistently published guides to scholarship—typically, edited compilations of essays to initiate beginning philologists into the contemporary landscape of scholarly engagement with literature and the other philological disciplines. These guides offer overviews of the major disciplines and subdisciplines, assert and attest to the value of scholarship in those disciplines, summarize the impactful current ideas and thinking of influential scholars and writers doing that work, and provide insight into the perspectives of those scholars—with examples of how their ideas and perspectives have been applied to scholarship.

Such guides to scholarship have been written by scholars. This means that their discussions engage with materials already in their hands, minds, and experience from years of research and reading and are therefore extraordinarily useful.

However, these works do not shed much light on the work of scholarship per se, nor do they offer an overarching approach to the activity of performing research. Volumes typically include a rich bibliography, possibly even two, one of which might be called “Additional Reading”: a list of titles that often, perhaps inexplicably to the observant novice, include none of the titles from its list “Sources Used/Consulted.” The presence of those bibliographies implies their value and an expectation of, well, additional reading. The absence of explicit direction in how to use them represents a disconnect and a gap, from the point of view of the student who is their intended reader.

The MLA Guide to Undergraduate Research in Literature closes this gap. Written by two reference librarians, it guides the reader in thinking about the research assignment and topic, providing immediately applicable information about the tools and methods of research. It fulfills its promise logically and concisely in just 137 pages, discussing early on the importance of understanding the assignment at hand and offering pointers on developing a topic. It then progresses into more advanced methods of searching in scholarly databases, branching into internet searching and locating specific types of information resources (such as background information and reviews). The volume does not address how the user might synthesize research with their own ideas and writing, and it contains no explicit discussion of how the researcher might know when they have finished their research. These issues lie outside the scope of the book. The authors describe methods and give clear information and advice, belaboring nothing. This leaves plenty of room for the reader/user of the book to refine their process and vary their path of inquiry as they complete their research writing assignments. To the book’s credit, it is not a click-by-click set of instructions. It describes clear methods, with examples, offering to the careful reader insights into what the beginner might expect from the research process. It also offers ideas for directed questioning to drive topic exploration. Overall, much is left to the reader, making it an excellent tool to support their learning and the development of a personal research style.

Navigating the information universe and its overlapping and complementary facets is challenging to teach. The text provides thorough coverage of the basics: primary vs. secondary sources; peer-reviewed material vs. not; popular material vs. scholarly. It also includes a solid discussion of library guides and discovery tools and how they differ from proprietary, discipline-specific databases and the open internet. The foundational information supplied here provides crucial assistance to the student researcher, emphasizing that no one set of rules will apply for all research goals. The authors emphasize that that context and assignment scope are great determiners of the need for peer-reviewed sources or popular material.

The table of contents is well organized, and terms defined in a glossary at the end of the book are shown in bold on their first occurrence in the text. Bibliographic information, when warranted, is included at the end of the relevant chapter. These elements facilitate use of the text as a handbook. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index and is not full-text searchable in Google Books. In the words of the authors, “If [a] book has an index, this can enable you to home in on where your topic is discussed” (10). In light of this statement, and of the fact that the term “index” is bolded and given a glossary definition, it is reasonable to conclude that the omission of an index was a publisher decision.

The structure of the text itself echoes the iterative nature of research without being repetitious. Some topics and terms are repeated in fresh contexts, sometimes in their own sections and at point of need. For example, “Evaluating Internet Resources” is a subchapter represented in the table of contents. The topic recurs briefly, with additional information, on page 108 in the chapter titled “Managing Sources and Creating Your Bibliography.” Such iteration effectively represents the nonlinear process of research. Though this approach serves the end-to-end reader extremely well, without an index it may slow the ability to review and apply the specific methods or ideas from the book. It is highly rewarding to read this book beginning to end, but the reader with a personal copy wishing to use it as a tool might benefit from reading with a pencil and page-points in hand. The addition by hand of page numbers to glossary terms would yield an “annotated index” and could save time in the future when memory has cooled. This would require preplanning, time, and some vigilant reading, but a deep familiarity with the book’s content might be a valuable artifact of such engagement.

As stated by the book’s title, it is a guide to undergraduate research in literature. However, 85 percent of this short text is applicable to research across the humanities. Only chapter 9 and the appendix are devoted specifically to American and English literature, and three of those pages are given to a mix of general reference materials including style manuals, citation guides, and other useful equipment to aid in the production of scholarly work. If complemented with appropriate domain-specific bibliographies and databases, this text will remain as applicable for literary research in other languages, as well as other humanistic domains, as it is for English and American literature.

The MLA Guide to Undergraduate Research in Literature will be helpful to more than merely its intended student audience: the instruction librarian preparing an instruction session for humanities students; the reference librarian or librarian-bibliographer wishing to change foci from another discipline to literature or the humanities; and the seasoned research librarian preparing for a research interview. But for the undergraduate researcher in particular, it is indispensable. It answers most questions related to literature research and many related to research in the humanities more generally, including some that the beginning researcher may not even be aware they have.—Mary E.S. O’Dea, Hamline University

Copyright Mary E.S. O’Dea

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