Evolving a Foundational Print Humanities Resource into an Online Scholarship Tool

Modern Language Association

Product Development

What online product development pathways for the MLA Handbook are both valuable and feasible given editorial goals, financial pressures, market/brand position, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?


In 2020, the Modern Language Association wished to assess in what ways an online version of the print-based MLA Handbook might be developed; this included the need to understand the market (users as well as purchasers) and to identify both challenges and opportunities. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing MLA to rethink the Handbook’s institutional customer base in the context of virtual education, and to do so quickly. C&E was retained to help determine what product development pathways were open to MLA, and then to assess their feasibility, both short and long term.

What We Did

C&E conducted qualitative research interviews with instructors, program directors, librarians, and educational technology experts on current online tools on the market, product features of highest value, and the various ways these products were purchased at different types of institutions. A report providing interview findings, a marketplace overview, and a set of potential product development scenarios served as a “pre-read” for a C&E-facilitated product concept workshop. The workshop discussions were captured by C&E in an outcomes and feasibility report. Once MLA had selected a path forward, C&E conducted a pricing study to identify the most appropriate pricing model and price points for the online version of the Handbook.


MLA came away with a clear determination of the best fit for evolving the MLA Handbook, including how best to address the “new normal” of virtual learning with online resources. Acknowledging the urgent needs of acquisitions and collections librarians as well as humanities instructors, students, and scholars, MLA took immediate steps toward the selected product development approach. In 2021, MLA launched the MLA Handbook Plus – a new product offering institutional, online access to an enhanced version of the Handbook. This set the stage for development of an MLA online library, which has continued to expand with additional titles and resources (including MLA Guide to Digital Literacy and MLA Guide to Undergraduate Research Literature).

Working with C&E gave us confidence that we made sound decisions as we took a big leap forward, creating the first digital subscription resource for the MLA Handbook. Their informative environmental study allowed us to hear what end users wanted and helped us create a successful product.

Paula M. Krebs

Executive Director