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

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Perfect Citation Storm

Randy Seaver started another round of the citation storm with a post entitled, "Inflaming Source Citation Passions." Never one to shirk a contest, I decided to jump right in with my opinions. Before getting to the meat of my opinions about citations, I think it would be nice to know who we are talking to. Here is a breakdown I call the Citation Awareness Chart, before getting into the battle, you might want to rank yourself and see if you really care: (please understand that I am not going to be very serious about this whole subject, so don't go getting yourself offended).

Level One: Can't read, can't write, can't type, doesn't know what a computer is and has never heard of genealogy.
Level Two: Can read and write, but hasn't ever heard of genealogy and thinks that it means studying rocks and minerals. Can play computer games and watch Netflix movies on a computer.
Level Three: Has read more than books assigned in school. Can copy written material if given time. Has heard of genealogy but cannot spell it. Uses a computer to check the weather and write on Facebook.
Level Four: Has an interest in genealogy and if asked, would know to look the word up before writing it or at least, use the spell checker in a word processing program. Has an e-mail account and can write a complete sentence.
Level Five: Has read several books. Uses the computer for writing checks. Has an active interest in genealogy and has entered names into Personal Ancestral File, but has lost the files several times and does not know how to find them on their own computer.
Level Six: Has graduated from Personal Ancestral File to some other program. Thinks that everything in the family trees online is scripture. Has a vague idea that genealogy involves research, but has just copied a complete line from FamilySearch and thinks the genealogy is all done.
Level Seven: Has realized that some of the information online is not accurate and is frustrated with the inaccuracies. Has a stack of photocopies of documents but doesn't know what to do with them. Has submitted his or her genealogy file to at least six online family trees.
Level Eight: Attends genealogy conferences and classes. Has heard about citations and tried a few but not found them easy to do. Knows that genealogists should use citations but hasn't figured out how to do them in his or her genealogy program.
Level Nine: Has recorded some of source citations for obvious sources but has never heard of Elizabeth Shown Mills and has put all the citations in the Notes section of the genealogy program.
Level Ten: Has listed citations for everything in the genealogy file. Has used the citation forms suggested by the program but doesn't really know or care if they are correct. Has never heard of MLA, Turabian or Chicago Manual of Style.
Level Eleven: Has meticulously listed every book, record, document or paper he or she ever touched and has complete and exhaustive citations to everything. Is worried whether or not the citations are correctly formatted.
Level Twelve: Has personal copies of the Chicago Manual of Style, Mills' books and several others. Stays awake at night worrying about citations.
Level Thirteen: Has all of the above books and is an editor for a genealogical publication and dictates the proper citation style.

OK, so who are really talking to? I would guess that for anyone lower than about Level Six, you are wasting your time. I don't think that it is wise to equate a genealogy file with a doctoral dissertation. If a citation has enough information to find the source, who (except those in Levels Eleven or above) cares if the citation conforms to somebody's idea of correctness. Having been a college professor for many years, I know how to be picky. I can argue periods and commas with the best, but who are we kidding? Do we want the general public involved in genealogy or do we want to turn it into a cult? See Kerry Scott.


  1. I'm a 10.5 I think.

    I have heard of CMS, Turabian and MLA, but have used only Mills. You should have listed Lackey too - heard of it. So i'm at least a 10.

    I don't have every book, document, record, etc. organized (God help me) or sourced (EE help me), and don't worry about the jots and commas too much. I sleep well knowing my citations are OK.

    So, i'm an obvious 10.5. Nice to be a 10+ in something!

  2. Thanks. I will continue to cite my sources using the best format I can as determined by either 1. EE, 2. My genealogy program, or 3.Luck. I will be sure that enough information is included so I can actually find the source again. I will NOT go back through hundreds of citations I made in my earlier days and correct them to my new (imperfect) understanding of "How it Should Be"; but will use that time for actual research.

  3. Well said James. I probably fit somewhere between a your level nine and eleven. I have tried to create citations in good form for as many of my records as possible but I'm not going to lose sleep over the process. I'm really not interested in being part of a cult but hope the joy of the search will draw more of the public to our ranks.

  4. I am a 7.75, how do I recognize the Citation Police when they come to my door?

    Actually, I have worked as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist all my adult life and it is really difficult to have angst about something that does not deal with life and death...

  5. Yeah!! For me, citations are so that I can remember where I found the data and can go back and retrieve it again with some consistency.

  6. I laughed so hard at your list that I couldn't really tell you what level I inhabit (I expect somewhere between 10 and 12). But I worked for 30 years as a copy-editor so I do care about citation form. I'm not sure I'm a purist or will ever become one; I AM sure that I can learn some points on clarity and usefulness from them.

  7. OK I am not afraid to admit my level. I am a Level 9 with the exception that I do know who ESM is.

    Fear of not citing sources correctly needs to be banished. My advice to newbies is to ask "Where did I get that piece of information" and then simply write the answer as completely as possible. 99% of the time their answer has all the components for a proper citation.

  8. Very true. I am somewhat of a 10--I used MLA in the course of receiving my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, but the truth is I never really cared about citation styles back then either. I always loved the professors who seemed the most logical about the whole thing: it doesn't matter how you cite, as long as you use all the information necessary and are CONSISTENT.

  9. I'm somewhere between nine and twelve. I can't understand why genealogists, if they need to cite consistently and according to a set of rules, cannot use one of the recognised systems from academia.

    Genealogy for me is not a formal academic pursuit; it's a hobby, a passion, an obsession and fun. I've cited using APA, Harvard and MLA according to the requirements of various academic institutions because it was a course requirement.

    When we are trying to find a house, cemetery or other landmark we do not say that one must only use a printed map, verbal directions, printed directions or a GPS system. We use that with which we are most comfortable. All of these are valid if they lead us to the place we want to go.

    Similarly with genealogy if a citation leads one to the desired resource then it has done its job.

    I cite not to demonstrate my ability to adhere to a set of rules but so that I and others can find a resource.

  10. I am probably at level 11, but as full time faculty I used to teach Writing Intensive college level courses (MLA). In school we used Chicago style (dating myself). As I mentioned on an earlier post, if you really wanted me to do it a particular way, provide an citation engine for the public, not just in a proprietary software.

    I agree with you. For research purposes, can't say I am picky to whether a citation has a : or ; just give me a way to get back to the source.