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

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Citations vs. Sources

I guess your first thought is that citations and sources are not the same thing and cannot be in opposition. But, in fact, they are in opposition when someone fails to provide a source merely because they are afraid to "mess up" the citation. Yes, that really does happen. People are intimidated by the forms asking for details about the source and they have no idea what the form is asking for and therefore elect either to forego adding the source or to leave off the citation.

I must admit that some of the systems for citations used by genealogy database programs are intimidating in their complexity. If a program elects to use a simple form for entering a citation, then it is criticized for failing to provide for all the variations found in the Mills book. (Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007).

OK, before you get all huffy, I am 100% in favor of citing sources and I have a copy of the Mills book sitting here, always within reach. I fully realize that I use Turabian format for all my book citations and that you publishing folks probably use Chicago or MLA or some other format. I use Turabian to annoy all of you anyway.

But there is a problem. Consistent with our desire to attract new, younger genealogy adherents, shouldn't we look at some of the areas of genealogy that might be made a little less intimidating. Isn't an 800 page book on citing sources intimidating? How about we decide that the source is important and as long as there is enough information to find the source, then the source is cited and leave it at that? Maybe the programs with the complex citation formats could be optional and a simple form would be sufficient for most purposes. Aren't the complex citations formats more suited to publications than family trees?

Now lets see, the idea is that we want to know where all this weird stuff came from, isn't it? Wouldn't it be nice if we had some idea whether all these lengthy pedigrees back into the Middle Ages and beyond had sources? Do we want to know or do we want perfectly formatted citations? I know, you want both. Knowledge and Perfection. So what if this is a multiple choice test and you can only choose one? As for me, I would rather have some idea where the stuff came from rather than worry about commas and colons. I'll leave the citation issues to the journal editing folks.

By they way, most of the people I know who are doing genealogical research have never read or even seen a genealogical journal article and wouldn't know where to go looking for one. So the whole idea of a formal citation is missing from their experience. The last time they did a citation was doing note cards in high school. Personally, I was used to citing everything I said in a law brief but, as lawyers, we use our own proprietary method of citation and it is pretty loose. If an attorney uses some weird format, nobody really cares. All they do is make disparaging remarks in the answering brief.

It also helps a whole lot that many of the journals use different citation standards and I find that I am always looking for a citation standard in Mills that seems to be one of the ones she left out of the book. For example, how do you cite comic books? No, just kidding. No comments please. I know how to cite comic books.

So what is the point of this blog post? I never thought you would ask. My point is that citation formats are nice but are really intimidating to most researchers. Let's try to be a little more inclusive and less strict. As long as we can find what they are talking about, it should work. If someone wants to come along and correct all my citations, and has nothing better to do, they are more than welcome to do so.


  1. I've been writing and editing citations since the Kennedy administration and I've never been able to use the formatting formats in genealogy software. There's no better way to discourage young people from genealogy than to present them with a complicated "You must do it this way no matter what" on the least fun part of the search. Trying to lock them in on their software is the icing on the poison cake.

  2. Bravo, James. I couldn't agree more.

  3. Two quick thoughts:

    In my Illinois State Genealogical Society webinar on this subject I said that "Something is better than nothing" in the matter of citations. But it is a language, and the better you speak that language the easier others will be able to communicate with you and appreciate your work.

    Finding the source is only one reason for citations. The other is to be able to evaluate the value of the source.

    Comment 2 1/2: People who quail at the size of ESM's book haven't been paying attention. The first 2 chapters tell you all the principles you need to know about evaluating evidence and citing it. The rest of the book is EXAMPLES -- which is something people are always asking for.


  4. As a PhD in English, I am shocked at how intricate the citation format is for genealogy. Shown is clearly an expert in her field, but MLA documentation long ago did away with the difficult and repetitive citation/sources cited page that she describes. (I have her book). As James Tanner writes, if the reader is provided enough information to locate the source, that is sufficient! I teach enough students who are intimidated by the relatively simple MLA documentation format--no wonder many genealogists are overwhelmed by the current baroque system prescribed for genealogy. Use the system you know best--use Turabian or Chicago or APA--I'm going MLA.

  5. *applause* And thank you! Citations is probably the biggest thing I'm struggling with right now, and it's nice to know that I don't have to be too hard on myself if I don't "get it right". I guess it's more important to "get it written"!

  6. Thank you --thank you --Thank you James !

    And what you are really getting at here is THE reason we are not drawing more interest from younger researchers, this recent OBSESSION with citations and sourcing would scare even the hardiest genealogist away.

    The research and discovery is the real fun of family history research and incorporate the use of the new technology and genealogy becomes a very exciting 21st century hobby - we just need very simple framework to cite where you get records/information from !

    I am a mastered degreed librarian and in library school we used Turabian but in undergrad we used MLA. It's just too much for what is supposed to be a fun pastime.

    My students love this easy bib/citation maker :

    by the way standard MLA for comic book would look like this :-)

    [Fox, Gardner F. (w), Mike Sekowsky (p), and Bernard Sachs (i).] "The Wheel of Misfortune." Justice League of America #6 (Aug.-Sep. 1961), National Comics Publications [DC Comics].

    Thanks, Nancy

  7. I've been fortunate to do quite a lot of tertiary study so have used almost every formatting method known to humankind at one point or another. The key guiding principles I was taught by one of our uni's chief librarians were that 1) if someone needed to, they should be able to locate a source to check a fact you presented, and 2) whatever method you use, you should aim for consistency to avoid confusion. That's the kind of KISS approach to referencing which encourages people to record and cite their sources as the top priority. Trying to fully implement the approaches outlined in EE as a relative novice is like trying to run before you can walk.

  8. You are so right about how difficult it is for beginners to figure out how to cite sources in genealogy software. I have been doing genealogy for a decade, but the sources in FTM are in a sorry state. I have tried numerous times to start doing them right and I get bogged down because I have to try to figure out where the original documents for something I found digitized on FamilySearch are located. Or I'm trying to determine if it is a county record now held by the state or something else. I get one done and then I realize that the software never asked me what website I found it at so I give up and don't try again for half a year. I really want to do this right both for myself and others, but I get so frustrated I just dread trying again.
    It would be nice if these programs could do something like the tax software. Q: what record is it? A: census. Q: is it federal or state? A: federal. Q: did you get it from a website or a brick and mortar location? And so on. It could even allow you to enter "I don't know" and leave that field blank so you could at least put in something and perhaps go back later when you understand the process better and could answer it then. Thanks for letting me vent!

    1. You shouldn't be trying to figure out where the original of a digitized record is, unless you viewed it at that place. If you viewed it online, you would cite the digitized version. You cite what you used.

  9. I very much want to learn more about my family roots; and I have spent a lot of time finding information. From reading genealogy blog posts, I have an idea of the value of various sources; and I don't copy unsourced info from Ancestry trees.

    However. I only have a limited amount of time to spend researching my family; and the idea of having to read a book to be able to adequately cite sources - well - it seems to me to be ridiculous. If I make a note (my program calls it 'free form') that can help me find the information again, that's enough for me. I'm a detail-oriented person, but I cannot imagine worrying over semi-colons or colons for whatever. That's not the point. I want to learn more about my family - not write the perfect citation.

  10. A small matter. "Turabian" is not a separate style. It is the name of the author of a book explaining the Chicago Manual of Style.

    However, neither of these two guides, nor APA, nor MLA, discusses how to cite original records of the breadth of those used by genealogists conducting research in original records.

    The only guide that even discusses writing the kinds of citations that we genealogists would need to write is Evidence Explained, which is itself an expansion of the Chicago style to include the original records we use.

  11. Okay, James. I'll bite. Why would we not cite a comic book the way we'd cite any other book? Are there really significant differences that would require the addition of yet another example to EE's {shudder} 880 pages?

  12. Every research paper in the liberal arts and humanities disciplines must have an MLA format annotated bibliography to cite the sources used to write the paper. Most students cannot recall MLA guidelines by memory. Students always need help while writing such bibliographies. See more annotated bibliography generator apa

  13. Citation formats can be too intimidating for researches. As to the turabian annotated bibliography, it is fundamentally the same as some different styles so mind must be taken to guarantee that you are really following the correct style on the off chance that you need to have your paper acknowledged. The most straightforward approach to guarantee that you hit the nail on the head is to take after a Turabian explained book index case with the goal that you can see precisely how your reference ought to be laid out on the page.