From MLA to MLA: Citing at Different Libraries

Alex Harrington has recently moved from her Reference & Instruction Librarian position at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, VA, to take the position of Access Services & Instruction Librarian at Penn State University’s Harrell Health Sciences Library in Hershey, PA.


Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite library activity: citing your sources!

Citation is woven throughout the Framework. “Information Has Value” reminds us to give credit to others for their original work and addresses other issues of information ownership. “Research as Inquiry” makes sure we know to “follow ethical and legal guidelines in gathering and using information.” “Scholarship as Conversation” starts by telling us to “cite the contributing work of others.” I’ve also used many of the Framework’s bullet points about credibility and authority to explain to students how to read citations in a way that helps them select more appropriate sources. So what I’m saying is, if we’re talking about information literacy with our students, we’re addressing citation in some way.

I joked with colleagues at my former library that I, a self-professed citation nerd, would forget all I knew about MLA and APA style, and have to learn AMA, and join the… well, MLA. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, no, I probably won’t really learn how to cite in AMA from scratch, because we use citation managers here.

It just so happened that, shortly after I started, the former liaison to one of the departments I was inheriting was going to speak to that department about citation management programs. I tagged along, of course. While waiting for the meeting to begin, the former liaison asked me about which citation management programs we typically used at the community college, and I just sort of shrugged: “We didn’t.” The students were taught to cite from scratch, or (more often) use the databases’ built-in citation builders, and double-check them when they copy/paste into Word. I told him that we never had students using citation managers. Then I started to think about why that was.

Part of it simply comes down to a question of volume. Teaching the community college students to set up and use EndNote would take more time and effort than it would be worth for the three to five citations they need in their paper.

The lack of longevity of the need for those citations is another point. The community college students are far less likely to need to keep track of citations of sources on the same or similar topic for a long period of time, whereas medical researchers will likely want to refer back to citations they’ve used before, or keep track of them over the course of months or years. Similarly, the medical researchers may be publishing, and in multiple places, so it would be very time-consuming to rewrite the citations for each style they need, when a citation manager does it in seconds. The community college students likely only need to cite a given source once, in one style, for one class. If they have to switch to another style, they probably won’t be using the same sources they cited in another style. (For example: their history paper in Chicago style and their biology paper in APA usually won’t have any sources in common.)

In my experience, at the community college, it was also important to explain to students why citation is necessary. Many of them seem to think of it as something between unnecessary busy work and torture invented by cruel teachers. So explaining the concepts of “Scholarship as Conversation” and “Information Has Value” in a context that is relevant to their work is needed. At the medical school, that doesn’t need to be addressed in much detail, if at all. Most of the people who are citing things here are trying to get published, and if “correct citation is necessary for publication” is all they know, it’s a good enough reason for them. (If nothing else, the majority of the students at the medical school already have other college degrees, and have been through the citation talk that the community college students are getting.)

I think the other big difference and its reasoning can be compared to math. In elementary school, you learn basic mathematical functions, like subtraction, where they tell you that you can’t take a bigger number from a smaller number. At some point in middle school, you find out that is possible, because negative numbers exist, but you can’t take the square root of them. But in high school, you discover that you can, because imaginary numbers exist. You get the point. I’m seeing citation the same way. My community college students were taught the parts of a citation to make sure they know the fundamentals (like what all the pieces of information are, and how to read some of the common abbreviations), and if they wind up in a more advanced academic situation like med school, they become the students I have now, who know what a citation should look like (so if EndNote spits out something that looks totally wrong, they can identify that).

So I’m curious to hear about your experiences with citation at the different types of academic libraries you’ve worked in. Are your students using citation management programs like EndNote, Mendeley, and Zotero? Are they expected to cite “from scratch”? What is the attitude toward copy/pasting the pre-built citations from databases that provide that tool?

2 thoughts on “From MLA to MLA: Citing at Different Libraries”

  1. Great post. There’s also another type of citation creator–the EasyBib kind. It might help a student create a full bibliography or a one-off citation. Our students at TNCC (VCCS shout out!) usually come having some experience with that type. They usually don’t know how to use it well, but they still do! So I really like to help students learn about the pieces of a citation and then how to properly put those into a generator. My current personal favorite, in spite of the name, is NoodleTools Express.

    The copy/paste citations make my head hurt sometimes, but they still have to be addressed. I wish we had more time.

    Congrats on the new position!

  2. Good afternoon Ms. Harrington,

    Thank you for sharing your insights concerning students’ experiences with citation styles. Your insights inspired me to consider my past teaching experience with community college students. In reflecting on my experience, I found myself agreeing with many of the ideas you expressed about the extent to which students learn and what they should learn about citation styles. I also found myself thinking about a particular semester when I employed what I came to realize was too much citation related information.

    From my years of teaching freshmen composition courses at the community college level, I came to the conclusion that just a broad overview of a particular citation style such as MLA was sufficient. I also came to the conclusion that since their assignments were typically short-2 to 4 pages was the norm–that no more than a few citations were necessary (the 3 to 5 that you recommended was the range that I used).

    For the most part that was the method I used. There was one semester, though, when I decided to introduce students to four citation styles–MLA, APA, Chicago, and CBE. I’d decided that since my students’ majors were diverse–from business to university transfer, from allied health to communication–that I’d try to prepare as many students as I could, citation wise. Needless to say, if I had to do it all over again, I would have introduced those students to MLA and APA (the ones I’ve discovered community college students are most likely to use) only. My intentions were good, but I made the curriculum more complicated than it should have been for a freshman, introductory level course. I realize that much of the citation related information didn’t apply to many of the students from those sections (no reason for a business major to learn CBE, for instance).

    Thank you again for encouraging me to reflect on what I learned from this experience, which I will apply in instructional sessions I’ll conduct during my career as an academic librarian. I wish you further success in your career.


    Jo Anna Rohrbaugh
    MLS candidate

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