Sunday, October 03, 2010

Today's Koan: If a reference can't be cited using MLA, does it really exist?

If a reference can't be cited using MLA (or Chicago), does it really exist?

For example, say you have a Kindle or an iPad. I've been given an iPad as a present--yay!--so let's stick with that as an example. You can download books from the Kindle store on Amazon.com, if you put the free Kindle app on your iPad. You can also buy or download books from the iBooks store, including free public domain ones. The thing that doesn't come along with these nifty editions is a set of page numbers that corresponds to the page numbers in the original text.

That's not a problem with .pdf documents, since they're images of the original. You can read them and, since Sept. 30, annotate them using the GoodReader app, or read and annotate them using iAnnotate. You can copy text from the .pdf and paste it into Docs-to-Go.

So far, I like the experience of reading on the iPad. If you have a book with endnotes, for example, the endnotes are links, so you can click on the note and then click back to the text. You can write notes in both the Kindle and iBooks apps, although I haven't explored that much because it's harder than I thought it would be to type on the screen-based keyboard.

What if you want to cite a book that you've downloaded? Kindle books--for scholarly books, anyway--cost about the same as the paperback edition, and they cost more than a used copy, so if I'm going to shell out the money for one, I want to be sure that I don't need to get another copy.

The piece of advice I've found most often is "go get a print copy of the book, find the citation, and cite the page." This is probably the best advice for now, but it's a colossal timewaster and a duplication of effort to have to hunt up the book if you've already bought it. If the book is in Google Books, you could try searching for the phrase in there, but a lot of books aren't in Google Books.

APA has addressed this by suggesting that you cite is as you would any unpaginated material: "Name the major sections (chapter, section, and paragraph number; abbreviate if titles are long), like you would do if you were citing the Bible or Shakespeare." Since paragraphs aren't numbered, I would be less than thrilled to have to scroll through and count the paragraphs just so I could cite the reference. And what about paratextual elements such as epigraphs? Do they count as paragraphs when you're counting?

Some other sources suggest that you cite the Kindle location number, which would be swell if the editor of the journal you're submitting to has a Kindle and not so much otherwise.

The Chicago Manual of Style suggests just citing the Kindle edition and maybe the chapter number.

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Seventh Edition floats above the fray by saying (in 5.7.18) that you should just say what kind of file it is: "Microsoft Word file, JPEG file" or whatever. Presumably you could say "Kindle file" or "iBooks file" there, too, although all of the examples given are for short pieces. That wouldn't provide much information if you were trying to cite from a book-length source. As EduKindle asks, "Why is it so hard to cite a passage on a Kindle?"

Beats me. I'll be happy when MLA gets this straightened out, almost as happy as I'll be when they decide to jettison those #@%$& angle brackets that they make you put around a URL (see 5.6.1) as though we'd all just stare helplessly at an http:// prefix without knowing it was a web address unless it was safely contained in a set of angle brackets. [Edited to add: tenthmedieval has a good explanation for this in the comments.]

6 comments:

mcconeghy said...

I don't have a Kindle, but I do have an iPhone. I know that I can search for any particular text using the built-in text search. Doesn't this partially relieve the need for a specific page citation if you're citing an electronic edition. I would obviously prefer citing things precisely, too. I don't want to make any more work for anybody else and I want to make my references rock-solid. But if every word I've quoted is searchable, that seems the quickest way to get it.

[Because the problem you're naming, in reverse, is that if you cite a book's page number and I have a digital edition, then I will still have trouble finding what you're talking about.]

Maggie said...

The answer is: Kindle needs to get less sucktacular. Once it has page numbers included, the problem disappears!

tenthmedieval said...

The angle brackets allow one to punctuate URLs properly in text. It means you can follow one with a colon or a comma and it's still clear where it ends and your text starts. That's whay I favour this still. It's that or throw them onto their own line and destroy your text's paragraph layout. If you know this already and still think they're evil, then firstly sorry for over-explaining, but, secondly, what's your reasoning?

Of course, this fails when auto-selection routines fail to realise that the angle bracket is not part of the URL... But the tradition is older than any such software, so I don't see it as the fault of the usage.

tenthmedieval said...

The angle brackets allow one to punctuate URLs properly in text. It means you can follow one with a colon or a comma and it's still clear where it ends and your text starts. That's why I favour this still. It's that or throw them onto their own line and destroy your text's paragraph layout. If you know this already and still think they're evil, then firstly sorry for over-explaining, but, secondly, what's your reasoning?

Of course, this fails when auto-selection routines fail to realise that the angle bracket is not part of the URL... But the tradition is older than any such software, so I don't see it as the fault of the usage.

undine said...

mcconeghy, I like that idea of search as a possible alternative. I wonder if that will gain traction as ebooks gain popularity.

Maggie--good point. In the very early days of journals online, they didn't include page numbers in the html version, but now they do. Maybe Kindle will follow suit?

tenthmedieval, that's the best explanation for angle brackets I ever heard, and I will now hate them less. My problem with them is purely one of layout: I'm always deleting the URL when I try to add the angle brackets, which probably says more for my layout skills than anything else.

In the very early days, post-Web but pre-MLA noticing it, there weren't angle brackets until somebody's handbook (am forgetting the name) put them in as a feature and MLA scooped them up. Maybe that's why I have such a reaction to them, but your logic makes good sense to me.

tenthmedieval said...

Sorry for the doubled-up comment; I obviously didn't hit 'Stop' on the typoed vrsion quickly enough. I think the syntax comes from e-mail, originally, like "Tenth Medieval ", so it's an old-school geek response to a then-new and pedantic problem I think.