When Is a Web Site a Container?

By Angela Gibson

As the MLA Handbook explains, works-cited-list entries in MLA style are structured according to the concept of containers. But it’s often tricky to determine when a work accessed online is contained in another work. This post will help you understand when a Web site is and is not a container.

Rule of Thumb

A Web site is a container when it is the platform of publication of the particular version of the work you consult. It is not a container when it is a passive conduit providing access to the work.

Examples of Containers

  • Twitter is the platform of publication for tweets.
  • Google Books is the platform of publication for digitized versions of complete print books.
  • Facebook is the platform of publication for comments by your friends.

In all these instances, what we are calling a container is the platform of publication of the source. A Web site is not a container, however, when it merely provides a link to a work.

Making the Determination

To determine whether a Web site should be treated as a container in MLA style, consider the role the site plays in making the source available.

If you click on a link on Facebook that takes you to a New York Times article, Facebook is not the container of the article; the New York Times Web site is.

A course management system, like Blackboard, is not a container if it links you to a work on an external site, like ProjectMuse. Let’s say, however, that you read your teacher’s lecture from Monday’s class on Blackboard and quote from that version in your paper. In that case, Blackboard is the container of the lecture. Why? Because it is the platform of publication of the version of the lecture you quote from.

Another example: an online store, like Amazon, is not the container of an e-book that you download from it. But if you quote a review of that book posted by a customer on the Amazon Web site? Well, then Amazon is the container of the review, because it is the platform of publication of the review.

Or, let’s say you do a Google search for commas and the results page displays a sentence and a half from a Wikipedia post defining what a comma is. The results page is not the container of that definition. The Wikipedia post is, because it is the platform that published it. But when Google features an original artwork as a Google Doodle, Google is the container of the artwork, because it is the platform of publication of the artwork.

Sites That Aren’t Containers

Let’s review what kinds of Web sites are not containers:

  • Any site that acts as a mere portal to a work published elsewhere is not a container.
  • Online stores. If you purchase and download a song or book from the Apple store, the Web site at is not the container of the song or book. It’s the store you purchased the work from and thus a conduit for access.
  • Search engine results, like the thumbnail from a Google image search or the results displayed for books by the “look inside” function on Amazon are not works, and thus they are not containers. To consult the work, you must click through to the site hosting the image or buy the complete book sold through the Amazon Web site.
  • An app downloaded from a Web site to a personal device is also not a container for the purposes of the style.

Did you find this explanation useful? It was adapted from our MLA Style 101 webinar. Watch for more webinars this fall on citing complicated Web sources, quoting and paraphrasing from sources, and more! Get updates by signing up for The Source, the MLA style e-mail newsletter.

Published 17 August 2017

1 comment on “When Is a Web Site a Container?”

  1. This was very helpful!

    A couple questions:
    Is the inclusion of information about viewing platform (Hulu) in an example in the Purdue OWL powerpoint on MLA citations incorrect since the tv show was not original content. Or is it fine since that’s where you would find the show now — by analogy with databases. (I feel like I have answered my own question here, as I so often do when I enter this text box.)

    More interesting question (I hope): In citing this blog post, I treated the MLA Style Sheet web site as the second container since the first container is the Behind the Style Sheet blog. Okay so far? If so, would I put the publisher — Modern Language Association — after the first or second container? Does it matter?

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