MLA Thesaurus

Subject indexing terms used in the MLA International Bibliography are drawn from the MLA Thesaurus, a set of controlled vocabularies developed by the MLA and continually revised and updated to ensure they represent current scholarly usage.  

MLA subject indexing increases the findability of materials across variations in article language or terminology. It also assists students and scholars in identifying authors, works, and scholarly terminology associated with their areas of research.

Descriptors and Indexing

The controlled vocabularies of the MLA Thesaurus include names of persons, titles of works, languages, groups, genres, stylistic and structural features, themes, sources, influences, processes, theories, and other related topics. As of 2016 the MLA Thesaurus contains over 520,000 names and 68,000 terms. 

Subject indexing in the MLA International Bibliography is provided by an in-house staff of subject experts (indexers or index editors) and by contributing scholars (field bibliographers). Indexers analyze the content of publications listed in the bibliography in accordance with a contextual indexing and faceted taxonomic access system (CIFT).* 

In this system, in addition to assigning descriptors specific to the particular focus of the indexed publication, indexers also classify the publication within a hierarchical structure reflecting the broad facets of the disciplines it covers, such as: 

  • national literatures

  • language and linguistics

  • pedagogy and the profession (including rhetoric and composition)

  • general literature and dramatic arts (including film, radio, and television)

  • folklore

For example, an article discussing both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea is indexed with terms indicating specific literary techniques, characters, themes, or other topics it discusses. The indexer also adds broad classifications such as “English literature,” “1800-1899,” “1900-1999,” “novel,” and the authors and titles discussed.

Classification places each publication within the overall structure of its discipline; indexing facets provide specificity. Does the publication discuss a particular theme, such as motherhood or race relations? Does it consider a literary technique (irony, allegory, etc.)? Is the author’s argument based on the theories of another scholar or does the author use a specific methodology, such as a pedagogical or psychological approach? The indexer strives to describe the material in more depth.

For researchers using the bibliography, this combination of classification and indexing facilitates the discovery of materials that address topics or themes within or across specific literatures, disciplines, time periods, genres, and so on. 

Thus a search on “Race and Middle English” returns items that discuss treatments of race across the time period, potentially unearthing authors or works the researcher may not have initially considered. Similarly, a search on “Mexican literature and short story” produces not only items that discuss short fiction in Mexican literature in general but also discussions of specific titles and authors within that genre and national literature.

Within national literatures, classification facets may include time period, genre, performance medium, literary groups and movements, individual authors and titles, and language (when it differs from that of the national literature discussed). Each broad classification has its own range of facets relevant to that particular area of study. 

Role Indicators

The MLA’s subject indexing also includes phrases that clarify relations between descriptors within or across facets, such as “treatment of,” “relationship to,” “influence of,” and “theories of.”

While these “role indicators” are not searchable on all vendor platforms, within each record display they provide context and nuance, creating a kind of miniabstract, as illustrated by the following samples of indexing strings:

  • Spanish literature, 1900-1999; García Lorca, Federico (1898-1936); “Oda a Walt Whitman”; poetry; treatment of Whitman, Walt (1819-1892); compared to Neruda, Pablo (1904-1973)

  • Language; theory of linguistics; sign theory; theories of Saussure, Ferdinand de (1857-1913); treatment in Derrida, Jacques (1930-2004)

  • Dramatic arts; film; Buñuel, Luis (1900-1983): Belle de jour (1967); treatment of sexuality; morality; compared to Ozon, François (1967-  ): Jeune & jolie (2013)

This helps researchers identify more precisely the materials that best suit their purposes.

The MLA International Bibliography is distributed to libraries as an electronic database by three different vendors, each of which offers its own interpretation of how best to implement subject indexing in support of researchers’ work. 

For tips on making the most effective use of subject indexing and the searchable MLA Thesaurus in your library’s version of the bibliography, please see our video tutorials.


*Before adopting the CIFT scheme in 1981, MLA bibliographers used a less detailed approach to classification, generally only noting the main concept of each article (e.g., American Literature -- 1800–1899 -- Hawthorne, Nathaniel; language -- bilingualism; ethnomusicology -- musical instruments).