Found Object: MLA Handbook

Location: Discovered between books from Associate Professor Emeritus Michael Donnelly. Object: A publicity announcement for the first MLA Handbook for Writers (8 August 1977). Observations: 1. This publicity piece, tucked into the back of the volume, is the sort of ephemeral object that is typically thrown out (or, today, recycled). I’m grateful for its chance preservation, as the “Dear Colleague” advertising copy launches us into the history of a ubiquitous reference book known to generations of English majors and graduate students as well as the many students who take required writing courses. 2. Ah, “complimentary desk copy”: they are now few and far between.  3. $3.95 seems like a good deal in relation to today’s price of $15.00, but the initial price point is likely comparable to the current cost. 4. What is The MLA Style Sheet?
Location: Discovered between books from Associate Professor Emeritus Michael Donnelly, near The MLA Handbook and its publicity piece. Object: The MLA Style Sheet, Second Edition (1970). Observations: 1. I should have known that The MLA Style Sheet would not be far behind the first edition of The MLA Handbook on Michael Donnelly’s bookshelves! 2. It looks like the Modern Language Association went through a re-branding of its logo between 1970 and 1977, given the letterhead on the 1977 publicity piece above and the 1970 cover of the The MLA Style Sheet.  3. This thin book, bound with staples, feels quite different than the MLA Handbooks that followed.
Location: Discovered between books from Associate Professor Emeritus Michael Donnelly, near The MLA Handbook and its publicity piece. Object: Opening of The MLA Style Sheet, Second Edition (1970), pages 2-3. Observations: 1. What we know as “MLA format” is not all that old, only codified in the first edition of The MLA Style Sheet in 1951. 2. The introductory section reveals that the first MLA Style Sheet was not published as a free-standing book or pamphlet but appeared in an issue of the association’s journal, PMLA, in volume 66 on pages 1-31.  3. The rapid and wide-spread acceptance of the MLA Style Sheet‘s guidelines between 1951 and 1970, as described in the opening remarks, reveals the increasing professionalization of the field, an interest in standardization, and the degree to which the guidelines were useful and helpful. 4. “Readability” as a “prime consideration of scholarly writing” remains a key criterion for the organization’s subsequent revisions to MLA style over the past decades.
Location: Discovered between books from Associate Professor Emeritus Michael Donnelly. Object: The MLA Handbook, First Edition (1977). Observations: 1. Running just over 130 pages, the first edition of The MLA Handbook is more capacious than its predecessor The MLA Style Sheet (39 pp in its second edition) but slimmer than its later editions, which could top 300 pages in length. 2. The very 1970s cover design feels both of its moment but also at home in 2021, with its rainbow of colors and streamlined graphic design.  3. Now in its eighth edition with a ninth on the way, a complimentary copy of The MLA Handbook still arrives for each member of the organization. 4. I’ll have a new appreciation for its history when the next one appears in my mailbox, looking quite similar in its planned cover design to the first one from 1977!

Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head

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