Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, December 23, 2013

The disconnect between genealogy and library sources

In the last few years, genealogists at a certain level have been pushing for the more uniform use of source citations. But unfortunately in this movement towards incorporating source citations in our work, we have ignored one considerably important aspect of those citations. At the same time genealogists have been discussing and writing about source citations, the world library community has been dealing with some of the same issues but there has been little connection between the rarified atmosphere of academic genealogical citations and the real world problems confronting library catalogers as their catalogs become almost uniformly computerized. This problem can be easily illustrated by asking a simple question: when was the last time you found an OCLC number or an LC number in a citation to a source in conjunction with your genealogical research or in reading or examining someone's genealogy?

In the book, Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007, the author mentions the OCLC only once on page 51 which state, "Libraries holding copies of specific published works are identifiable through the Online Computer Library Center's WorldCat database, and similar resources." This statement appears in the context of a short section about citing a repository and the concluding statement says:
In our working notes, we may wish to include the repository at which we found the publication simply as an aid in case we need to reconsult it. However, a citation to the facility most convenient to us personally would be of little value to users of our work who live elsewhere.
My point here is that this attitude on the part of those citing sources illustrates the disconnect between libraries and genealogists. Let me pose a hypothetical situation to explain my concern. Let's suppose that I am doing research in a large public library. I find an important document about my ancestor in the library's special collection's department. This document is unique and is found no where else in the world. Since I am a modern, dutiful genealogist, I carefully record a citation to the document. Then, in the course of my avocation as a genealogist, I publish my findings in one of our fine genealogical journals. At this point, another of the dutiful genealogists who is interested in the same ancestors, reads my article and is so interested that she must see this valuable original document. How does she find where I found the document?

Let me give a concrete example from real life. This is a document I have seen in my research: Minutes of the Little Colorado stake, 1878-1887. This document is a manuscript in archival material. In today's world, you could find this document by doing a Google search on its name. There are apparently no copies of this document online and the only way you are going to see this document is to find it in a library. Unless you live in Phoenix or Utah Valley, you are not going find it convenient to read this manuscript. But would it help you to know that a manuscript copy was in the Arizona State University Library, the University of Arizona Library and the Brigham Young University Library? It certainly would. What is more important this item has an OCLC number or Online Computer Library Center number and appears in So here is the disconnect. The libraries of the world have been diligently organizing huge numbers of resources and the source citation industry has yet to realize the value of putting a reference to the location of the source in their citations which can be as simple as adding the OCLC number of the manuscript collection. By the way. the OCLC number for the document above is 145435261. Guess what, if I put that number into with its over two billion catalog entries, it will go directly to that item.

There are other library oriented systems of numbering library holdings out there in the universe. I am familiar with the Library of Congress Control Number. Here is a description:
The Library of Congress began to print catalog cards in 1898 and began to distribute them in 1901. The Library of Congress Card Number was the number used to identify and control catalog cards. With the development of the MARC format and the first distribution of machine-readable records for book materials in the late 1960s, the name of the LCCN was changed to Library of Congress Control Number. LCCNs are used for authority, bibliographic and classification records and are currently structured as follows:

Element Length Positions Alphabetic Prefix 3 00-02 Year 2 03-04 Serial Number 6 05-10 Supplement Number 1 11

The uniqueness of the LCCN is determined by the first 11 positions (positions 00-10). The Supplement Number has never been used by the Library of Congress and this position is always blank. The Supplement Number may be followed by two kinds of variable length data known as Suffix/Alphabetic Identifier and Revision Date. Each Suffix/Alphabetic Identifier is preceded by a slash as is Revision Date. If there is no Suffix/Alphabetic Identifier, the Revision Date is preceded by two slashes.
OK, so the system is a little complicated but the number unique identifies the item and makes finding the item very much easier because the number is tied to a catalog.

Maybe it would be a good idea to start integrating the library systems of the world and genealogical source citations. Just a thought.

1 comment:

  1. I can't understand why those genealogists who are advocating uniform use of source citations see the need for a whole new system just for genealogy.
    If one is available we could also should consider using the ISBN (International Standard Book Number in our citations. In fact if we used this we wouldn't need to have any further information in our citations.