Recently I was discussing the citation of articles that have been posted in HTML with my fellow PhD students Peter Buchanan and Michael Donnelly. Once upon a time, the MLA had us number each paragraph, but that practice has been removed in the most recent citation standards. It makes good sense, too, as counting paragraphs in any work of of substantial length is a painful task, and for the most part it’s easy to tap ctrl+F and find the reference straight away.
But sometimes this new system doesn’t work terribly well. For example, if you’re trying to find a common phrase in a long document, you may find yourself searching for some time. Likewise, a paraphrase can prove fiendishly difficult to track down, as it could be substantially transformed from the original expression.
The metadata that paragraph numbers provide can also prove quite helpful in helping you situate the arguments spatially within the text. Is this an argument made early in the article, or perhaps towards the conclusion? Are these two pieces of evidence presented close to one another in the article they’re cited from, or have they been brought together by the author who is citing them? Did this I’m marking student engage with the entire article, or did they pick all their citations from the introduction? With paragraph numbering, we can more easily answer some of these questions at a glance.
With this in mind, it occurred to me that it would be easy to solve this using a tool available in all modern web browsers: bookmarklets! Using a bookmarklet, we can automatically add numbers to each of the paragraphs in any given website, without that website’s author having to make the changes themselves. If we visit a site and click the bookmarklet, the paragraph numberings will all appear automatically. If you cite paragraphs according to this numbering, any reader can visit the site and run the same bookmarklet to get the same paragraph numbers. This is an easy, minimally-intrusive way to get add the metadata we need to effectively and efficiently cite website content.
I encourage you all to try this yourselves. Simply drag this below link to the bookmark bar of your web browser. When you visit an HTML-based article, just click the bookmarklet in your bookmark bar and the paragraph numbering will appear on all the paragraphs in the article, available for easy citation.
Bookmarklet: MLA Paragraph Tagging
Please do let me know what you think, either in the comments or by tweeting me at @mattlaschneider..