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

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Tell me where you found it -- The Limitations of Formal Citations

Serious research involves a systematic process of discovering and then recording information so that progress is made towards the intended goal. This is true whether or not the research is scientific, legal or historical. Failure to adequately cite the sources of your information is an admission that what you have recorded is unreliable.

Historically, genealogists have been remiss in their need to document and cite their sources for compiling family histories and pedigrees. It is not uncommon to find an entire book of alleged genealogical information without a singe reference to where the information in the book was obtained. Subsequent researchers are then forced to either accept the information on faith or redo the research to verify its accuracy. Granted, the idea that all genealogical research should be substantiated by source citations is a relatively new concept. This state of affairs has occurred primarily because of the casual nature of genealogical research in the past. I can give some concrete examples of what I am writing about. In my own library, I have the following books containing information about different parts of my ancestry and family relationships.

De Brouwer, Elizabeth. Sidney Tanner, His Ancestors and Descendants: Pioneer Freighter of the West, 1809-1895. Salt Lake City, Utah (4545 S. 2760 E., Salt Lake City 84117): S. Tanner Family Organization, 1982.
Kleinman, Mary Miles. The Essence of Faith. Springville, UT: Art City Pub. Co., 1973.
Nelson, Melba Madson, William Smith Tanner, Emma Elena Tanner Madson, and John Joshua Tanner Family Association. Descendants of John Joshua Tanner: Born December 19, 1811, at Greenwich, Washington County, New York, Died 9 September 1896 at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah. [Salt Lake City?]: John Joshua Tanner Family Association, 1979.
Overson, Margaret Godfrey Jarvis. George Jarvis and Joseph George De Friez Genealogy. [Mesa?, Ariz.]: [M.G. Jarvis Overson], 1957.
Parkinson, Diane, and John Parkinson. James Parkinson of Ramsey: His Roots and His Branches : England, Australia, America : A Biographical History and Genealogical Record of the Family of James and Elizabeth Chattle Parkinson. Austin, Tex.: Published for the James Parkinson Family Association by Historical Publications, 1987.
Richardson, Arthur M, and Nicholas G Morgan. The Life and Ministry of John Morgan: For a Wise and Glorious Purpose. [Place of publication not identified]: N.G. Morgan, 1965.
Salisbury, Lois Peterson Horsley. The Brigham Young and Stella Jarvis Peterson Posterity. Provo, Utah: Family Footprints, 2002.
Tanner Companies, and J. Morris Richards. Tanner Companies Collection, 1920.
Tanner, George S. Henry Martin Tanner; Joseph City, Arizona Pioneer, Born June 11, 1852, San Bernardino, California, Died March 21, 1935, Gilbert, Arizona. [Place of publication not identified, 1964.
———. John Tanner and His Family: A History-Biography of John Tanner of Lake George, New York, Born August 15, 1778, Hopkinton, Rhode Island, Died April 13, 1850, at South Cottonwood, Utah. Salt Lake City: John Tanner Family, 1974.
Tanner, Maurice, and George C Tanner. Descendants of John Tanner; Born August 15, 1778, at Hopkintown, R.I., Died April 15, 1850, at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah; [Place of publication not identified, 1923.
Udall, John Nicholas, John N Udall, Rosly Lillywhite Udall, and Fred C Pinnegar. The Wonder of It All: The Autobiography of John Nicholas Udall. Orem, Utah: FCP Pub., 2006.

Almost without exception, not one of these extensive books contain more than very sketchy references to the sources for the thousands of pages of history and family names. Most people would be thrilled to have any one of these books about their family. Over the years, all this has done for me is give me more work verifying the information contained. The tragedy here is that much of what is in these books is anecdotal in nature and cannot now be reconstructed.

My conclusion is not a reflection on the ability, sincerity or dedication of any of the compilers or writers, but the fact still remains that without source citations the information must be independently researched and verified.

But there is a further and more serious issue here. The list of books I provide above are "correctly cited." In fact, the citations conform to the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition. See the following:

The Chicago Manual of Style. 2010. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

But here are some questions. Is the 16th edition the latest edition available? The answer is yes but here we get into an interesting issue. Where would you go to find a copy of any of the books I have listed? The citation formats are correct according to one particular citation format, but they fail to tell me the one essential detail needed for research: where can the books be located?

Now, I told you that I have copies of all of these books, which is exactly correct, but the citations, although "correct" do not tell you that piece of information. Some of these books are really rare. There were a very small number of originals printed and locating a copy of some of these books could be a major challenge. I will give you one hint however. All of these books can be found on

As I read genealogical journal articles and review online publications by scholarly genealogists, I see some considerably amount of discussion about citations and sourcing, but many times (most of the time?) these carefully cited and sourced works do not give a hint as to where the cited material is physically located or where I might view the source.

Let's think about this a little and see if we need to start being a little less academic and particular about the format of our citations and focus more on providing information about where the information was obtained.


  1. A distinction that must be made here is between published and unpublished materials. The works that you cite above are all published materials from what I can tell. That means there is no guarantee of where they will be found. There might be millions of copies at one end for works like the trade paperback version of a Harry Potter novel, whereas there might be fewer than ten copies of very rare works. There is no guarantee of the location of a published work and it is up to the reader to locate repositories containing those published works. That's what library catalogues are for after all: at very worst a published work will be somewhere in the British Library or the Library of Congress if published in English unless something very odd has happened for example.

    By way of contrast an unpublished archival work will likely exist only as a single copy anywhere in the world. So if a person is to see such a work there is no chance of them getting hold of it from a commercial publisher and they have to approach the archive where the work is located. In some cases which archive that is can be worked out with little effort, but it still behoves the citer of the work to provide that information. Then within that archive a catalogue citation should be provided to allow location of the information.

    So for published works the where is simply from a copy of the published work but for unpublished works the where is the physical location of the document and also a catalogue reference within that physical location.

    1. Even though all of the "books" I cited are "published works" many of them are privately published and had only few copies printed. My point is that we need think about citations as telling subsequent readers where to find the book or whatever.

    2. Will it tell the reader where that published work is though? If a work is privately published with only a few copies made then it is almost in a curious kind of limbo. Many books privately published will probably not comply with legal deposit laws, due to the authors not having the first clue about those legal deposit laws. So a copy will not be in the Library of Congress is published in the US or in the British Library if published in the UK or the corresponding legal deposit library elsewhere.

      So if it is not in a legal deposit library then it is unlikely to be in a library anywhere. That means it should be regarded more like an unpublished archival item. The tricky bit is where to draw the line there really between archival-type items and published items.

      Another interesting problem with archival documents is the catalogue system of the archive in question. In the UK we are very lucky in that the National Archives has a very good catalogue with consistent references and a concise style guide as to how they should be cited. For example if I wanted to cite the UK 1841 census reference for a collateral line relative of mine the full archival citation according to their style-guide would be, The National Archives of the United Kingdom, "1841 Census of England and Wales," HO 107/394, book 1, folio 9, page 13. I could then add in a reference to which of the online databases I pulled the information from if I so desired, but the information I have quoted there is enough to find the entry in the census; I only have to specify the name of the person it relates to in order for the exact on the specified page to be found. I have certainly come across no corresponding NARA guidance on how to cite census or other documents found amongst NARA holdings when dealing with collateral lines that ended up in the United States.

      So in addition to the awkward question of specifying the repository for archival-type documents we then come to the trick of giving a catalogue reference for those documents so that they may be found within the repository! In that we are beholden to the repository in question and the standards of its catalogues.

    3. Thank you so much for this expanded comment. There are a lot of facets to this issue. The real question is "Can someone actually find the document, book, or other record that is cited as a source?"

  2. That is why my referencing is aimed at someone being able to locate my source.

  3. So, the obvious answer is that wherever possible, you should use your software's features to include the repository in the citation, so that, when you found a book in the FHL, you mention that, and include the call number. Any proper desktop program can do that, and a modern one will also have room for a persistent URL to WorldCat.

    You can also provide a link to the FamilySearch catalog where available, or FamilySearch books.

    1. That would be a good start. But this is something that needs to be thought through.

  4. Thank heaven for this post. I think the exact formatting of the citation has become so rigid that most of us just give up doing it at all. I understand the need for some standardization, but very few people want to spend the time or do the research to get the formatting exactly the way the powers that be have decreed.
    I completely agree with your last paragraph: Let's think about this a little and see if we need to start being a little less academic and particular about the format of our citations and focus more on providing information about where the information was obtained.