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

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Looking towards a rational philosophy of citations

In the genealogical community we have a broad spectrum of attitudes towards citations. At one end, we have the vast majority of researchers comprised of casual and/or lightly involved adherents who are unaware of either the need for citations or have any idea how to add a citation to their pile of papers or files on Personal Ancestral File (PAF). At the exact opposite end of the world of genealogy, we have the super-professionals, journal editors, former or present academics, or similar individuals with a compulsion not only to cite everything they say, or write, or do but are compelled to do so in a formal "acceptable" manner.

The controversy over the manner of citing records, sources, repositories and everything else is entirely lost on the the greatest majority of the genealogical world. In any given week, I would guess we have a couple of hundred patrons at the Mesa Regional Family History Center. Out of those, say, 200 patrons, I am just guessing but I would think that less than a dozen have ever attended a genealogical conference, ever read a book or magazine about genealogy, attended a class on citing sources or even heard of the subject.

I put myself firmly at the academic end of the spectrum. As an attorney, I have written a number of publications for continuing education, thousands of briefs and motions, thousands of letters, almost all of which have had some kind of source reference. Some people breathe, I cite sources. How does that translate over to genealogy? Not really very well, thank you. My current working file has 427 master sources. I could easily triple or quadruple that number. I am much better at gathering source material than I am at writing it all down and organizing it. I probably have over 30,000 scanned documents.

So where does that leave us in the genealogical community. Here are some observations and suggestions:

1. We should be fully committed to the idea of citing sources. Most (all?) of the popular genealogical database programs have adequate to very good citation provisions. There is no real excuse for not having a citation to a source if you are using one of the newer programs. However, even PAF has an adequate source citation method.

2. When we write, speak or teach, we should always include a commercial announcement about citing your sources.

3. We should try hard to consistently cite sources in our own materials.

4. We should be charitable about others' lack of source citations and remember that not everyone even knows that citations exist.

5. When we see a citation that is poorly written, contrary to our own version of a citation or otherwise bad, we simply ignore it and go on with our lives.

6. If we are in a position of deciding on the format and/or content of citations for a publication, online post or wiki or whatever, we try to be as liberal and inclusive as possible without undermining the integrity of the publication.

7. Let's try not to argue too much about colons, commas, spacing and capitalization.

See you next time.


  1. A great list which I have deposited in my Evernote collection so that I can assimilate it.
    I would submit a corollary to point number 5. If the "faulty" citation is truly confusing and if the author is still in reach, we could query the author of the citation. Such as, "I didn't quite understand your citation for Source Number 7; did you mean to say that it came from papers in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City?" This may answer a question you need answering and may also teach the person how to include necessary information WITHOUT any posturing or slapping of hands.
    Sue McCormick

  2. Citations...they give me a headache. I never have figured out how to do them right. I wish I knew.

    Vickie Wagner