A Comparison of the Iter Bibliography and the International Medieval Bibliography: Tools for Researching the History of the European Middle Age

Daniel Newton and Jennalyn Tellman

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Librarians and researchers studying medieval history need a sophisticated understanding of the contents of relevant databases, including the Iter Bibliography and the International Medieval Bibliography, to develop effective research strategies. Such an understanding includes the strengths and usefulness of the individual databases and an appreciation of what materials are unique to each of the databases. A comparison of journal titles indexed by each of these databases does not provide adequate evidence of the databases’ coverage, strengths, and weaknesses. We undertook this study to gain an understanding of what a researcher using these resources could expect to retrieve from each database.

The Iter Bibliography and the International Medieval Bibliography (IMB) are indexes for materials on the European Middle Ages. Librarians and researchers studying medieval history need a sophisticated understanding of the contents of these databases to develop effective research strategies. Such an understanding includes the strengths and usefulness of the individual databases and an appreciation of what materials are unique to each of the databases. A comparison of journal titles indexed by Iter and the IMB does not provide adequate evidence of the databases’ coverage, strengths, and weaknesses. We undertook this study to gain an understanding of what a researcher using Iter and the IMB could expect to retrieve from each.

Literature Review

Librarians and other scholars have analyzed Iter and the IMB, but no comparative study of them has been published. In 2003, Dalton and Charnigo investigated the tools historians use for finding secondary information. They asked historians which indexes, abstracting services, and specialized or history-related bibliographies they use most often. The IMB was the sixth most used source in a list of ten bibliographies, accounting for 4 percent of the responses. L’Année Philologique was tenth on the list with 3 percent of the total. We examined it in this study, but did not find sufficient material to include it in this paper. Searches in L’Année Philologique retrieved materials on Judaism, Islam, and archaeology not found in the other two databases. Iter did not appear on the list at all; it had only become available to institutions in 1998. Dalton and Charnigo also asked their subjects to name the electronic databases they most frequently used. In a list of fourteen electronic databases, Iter appeared as number twelve.1 The IMB did not appear at all, probably because it only came online in 2001. With the exception of America: History and Life, Historical Abstracts, and library catalogs, the most frequently used electronic databases do not have a paper antecedent.

The Dalton and Charnigo study indicates that comprehensiveness is the highest priority for historians. When Dalton and Charnigo asked historians whether they preferred depth, described as the “retrieval of the largest number of records which might pertain to my topic and in which I must spend time filtering out irrelevant citations,” or relevance, defined as the “retrieval of a few records, all of them relevant to my topic, but with the chance that many other works might fall through the cracks, due to the limiting parameters of this type of search,” 70 percent chose depth.2

Librarians commonly train students and researchers to use the terminology of specific databases. Dalton and Charnigo note that subject searching by historians in their survey means keyword searching rather than searching by assigned subject headings or descriptors. They further note that the problems historians experienced with electronic sources primarily were due to the scope and indexing of the sources not including needed information, not covering dates needed, not being sufficiently international, or being “too anglophone.” Respondents also expressed dissatisfaction with the terms used as the subject headings or descriptors.3

Jaeger and Victor have written an introduction to medieval studies sites available on the Internet in which they discuss both Iter and the IMB. They comment that Iter contains bibliographic citations of harder-to-find materials such as reviews, conference proceedings, and Festschriften—a volume of essays or articles contributed by many authors in honor of a colleague or as a tribute.4

An article by Dillon includes both the IMB and Iter in the category of “Major Publishers and Distributors of Online Humanities Resources,” under the subset for “History,” giving a sentence-long description of each.5 Quinn also includes both the IMB and Iter in the category for history in an article on Web-based resources.6

Beghtol, in her article about Iter, notes that “abstracts are not routinely provided for in humanities journal articles and an article title does not necessarily describe its content directly or concretely.”7 Furthermore, because Iter covers many languages, keyword searching is likely to be imprecise.

In 1976, Miller reviewed the paper edition of the IMB in The Review of English Studies. Miller notes that its coverage of literature outnumbers other topics and suggests that the IMB’s chief use is for interdisciplinary research.8 Elder reviewed the paper version in 1977. He comments that the source “is becoming as useful to an East European medieval scholar as it is to a West European.”9 Walker, writing about the paper version of the IMB, comments that it is weakest in the area of medieval law, noting the omission of important articles of relevance from the American Journal of Legal History and the Michigan Law Review. Nonetheless, she states that it is a very valuable research tool and believes that universities should provide access to it.10 Whiteford describes the approach taken by the electronic version of the IMB. He notes its use of a “browse list” of terms in alphanumerical order. It is possible for researchers to scroll the list of indexed terms to select one. He notes, however, that a researcher needs to know how a browse list is constructed before the researcher can effectively use it.11

Izbicki has extensively reviewed Iter, which was born digital in 1998. He notes that it shares the medieval field with the IMB and that while each contains certain unique titles, there is some journal overlap. He states that “Iter’s longer chronological reach (from 400 to 1700, not 1500) will recommend it as a first stop to researchers with interests for the Middle Ages.” He has used both tools for researching political aspects of the Virgin Mary, finding both overlapping and unique titles. He notes the broad range of languages covered in Iter and the fact that some records from as far back as the eighteenth century can be found. Izbicki’s assessment provides helpful tips for researchers using Iter. 12

Castell, project manager for Iter, delivered a paper on Iter shortly after it became available. The paper discusses the information-management issues that arose during Iter’s initial development. The goals of the director were to employ internationally accepted standards and to provide comprehensive coverage of print and electronic publications. Furthermore, the director wished to involve graduate students in Renaissance studies and information studies in the creation and maintenance of the records.13 Castell writes that although Iter uses Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), the time periods normally made a part of the subject heading are represented differently from the way they are in bibliographic records. Instead, it uses “Time Period of Content” (045) fields, making it possible to describe the time period at an exact level of specificity for each item. Castell further states that the database’s use of the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), with the attribute of the number not tied to the physical location of a piece, permits more than one notation to be assigned.14 These factors affect the way users search Iter:

Users must be made aware of the separate limit by time period that has been created to provide a more flexible and specific query for dates. They must also be familiarized with the search by discipline, which allows users to scan the literature from a number of different angles, and informed that a more refined search can be created by adding specific date or geographic limits to results from a DDC hierarchy search.15

An e-mail communication from Iter’s project manager notes that limiting searches by time period was planned, but it did not materialize because of Iter’s decision “to halt original cataloguing operations, which focused solely on cataloguing works published in journals.”16


Given that library budgets are shrinking nationwide, it is important for librarians to assess the usefulness of databases to see if all are needed. An effective assessment should address overlap, ease of use, and cost. Librarians and researchers must understand the available resources and their contents to effectively retrieve valuable citations. In this article we examine the overlap and ease of use of Iter and the IMB.

Iter is an OpenURL-enabled bibliography of more than 1,010,000 records for articles, essays, books, dissertation abstracts, encyclopedia entries, and reviews. This material has been collected from 8,707 publications, including 1,707 journals. It is updated daily, with thousands of new records added annually. It began publication in 1994; in 1998, it became available to subscribers only. Citations for books, journal material (articles, reviews, review articles, bibliographies, catalogs, abstracts, and discographies) are included, as are citations for dissertation and essays in books (including entries in conference proceedings, Festschriften, encyclopedias, and exhibition catalogs).17

The IMB database comprises records derived from articles published in periodicals and in miscellany volumes. Geographical areas covered are Europe, the Near East, and North Africa.18 It does not include book reviews. The IMB began publication in 1967 in paper format. It became available on CD-ROM in 1993 online in 2001.

The publisher of the IMB made a presentation during the 2007 Annual Conference of the American Library Association to the Association of College and Research Libraries, Western Subject Specialists, Classical, Medieval and Renaissance Discussion group. The group’s notes provide a summary:

The broad distribution of journal articles and essays across disciplines and languages requires special strategies both for the indexer and the researcher. The IMB covers a wide range of journals and targets the best publications in the field. The goal of the IMB’s editorial team is to connect scholars quickly and easily to materials. The unique nature of medieval studies prevents the use of other indexing systems, such as LC [Library of Congress]. For this reason the IMB’s editors have devised their own unique system of “three-dimensional” general classification with the three areas being: general subjects, geographical areas, and centuries. There are also specific indexes of place names, persons and texts, specific subjects, and manuscripts. Hierarchical indexes of subjects and places are also available, for example: British Isles-England-West York-shire-Leeds-Kirkstall Abbey. To date, the IMB contains 350,000 records with 10,000 being added per year.19

A discussion group member noted that the database does not index journals that only have an online presence because of concerns about continuous access and the lack of peer review.

Iter and the IMB use different thesauri. Iter uses LCSH and also permits searching by DDC. These are access points that are widely known by librarians and sometimes known by experienced researchers. The IMB has its own thesaurus.

A comparison of the databases is complicated by the fact that Iter indexes materials from a broader historical period than the IMB. The IMB covers 300–1500 CE; Iter covers 400–1700 CE, spanning both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Furthermore, years of coverage of journals vary. The IMB became available in 1967 and does not index journals published prior. Iter covers materials published since 1784.

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