In my former life, one in which the sermons of Bishop Lancelet Andrewes seemed inestimably important, the Modern Language Association's Handbook for Writers of Research Papers was my secular citation bible. MLA style reigns supreme in literature and various other humanities, so MLA's recent move to ditch its "print-centric" default style last month has been controversial. And URLs for Web content? They're gone too.
The changes are part of MLA's seventh edition of the Handbook, published last month, whose predictably soporific cover design belies the radical citation changes within. As Inside Higher Ed describes the changes, "print is the default no more" and the new edition suggests "that the medium of publication should be included in each works cited entry."
Even more interesting is the MLA's decision to ditch URLs in citations. URLs "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," says the book. "Readers are now more likely to find resources on the Web by searching for titles and authors' names than by typing URLs."
The move set off a bloodless internecine war here at Ars, where (in the Harvard crimson corner) editor-in-chief Ken Fisher defended the honor and necessity of the full URL while (in the Carolina blue corner) I applauded the MLA's move on the grounds of aesthetics, ease, and utility. No one else on staff appeared to care.
For those in academics, though, the move is just further evidence of the Web's mainstreaming. Print, for long the superpower, now sees itself reduced to just one more format among others. As archives like Project MUSE and JSTOR continue to digitize old journals and projects like Google Book Search digitize old books, even information that originally appeared in "print" is increasingly accessed through electronic systems, read off of screens, or (rather ironically) printed again by the ream in campus computer labs.