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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Citations: Rules or Principles?

As genealogists are we governed by rules or principles? However, upon reflection, I guess the proper question to ask is whether we are governed at all? We recently did some construction, finishing off our basement. All through the process we had a series of inspections. When the job was completed, there were several items that needed to be fixed before the final inspection. Analogously, my blog is constantly inspected and reader submit comments requesting corrections all the time. But in my genealogy work, there are no periodic inspections unless I share my files with others, I get no feedback at all.

It seems to me that even if we all could somehow agree that there are certain rules and/or principles that apply to genealogy, there is no enforcement mechanism at all and any such rules etc. would be observed only by the most assiduously competent and careful. But there is a segment of the genealogical community that operates as though there were carefully crafted universal rules and further, that those rules apply to all genealogists no matter their degree of involvement or skill. Interestingly, these self-appointed guardians of the genealogical norm, cannot seem to agree very much among themselves as to the content of the rules or even which of the rules apply.

Nowhere in the realm is this lack of uniformity more obvious than in the world of citations of authorities and sources. It thought it would be interesting to look at some of the guidelines for submission of articles to the more prominent genealogical publications and see how much uniformity exists. Who would know more about the "rules of citations" than the editors of the genealogical society magazines?

My first example is the Guidelines for Writers published by the National Genealogical Society (NGS). Hmm. The Guidelines for Writers is very short and concise and any reference to citations is missing. The only statement about format is the following:
NGS Magazine reserves the right to edit all submissions to conform to house style and needs. The NGS Magazine editor agrees to make every reasonable effort to make available to the Writer the final, edited version of the article while there is still time to make corrections.
That seems fair enough, I would suppose that if you were too far off base, they would reject the article altogether or tell you to rewrite it with some kind of citations. If I were going to submit an article, I would probably look at several back issues of the magazine and try to emulate the format.

Next in line is The Genealogist, a publication of the American Society of Genealogists. Their guidelines are even more terse than the NGS.
The editors are particularly interested in single family studies and compiled family genealogies, single-line descents, and articles that solve a specific problem while demonstrating a technique for solution of similar problems. The editors will not draw arbitrary geographic or chronological limits for articles but will continue to exclude queries, which have a proper place in many other publications.
They rely on sample articles entirely, which, by the way, are full of lovely footnotes.

Moving right along, I found a more fertile field in the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about certification from the Board for Certification for Genealogists. They even include a definition of genealogy which seems very helpful. They answer the question very specifically:
8. Question: What is the genealogical standard for documentation (source citation)? 
Answer: Every statement of “fact” that is not “public knowledge” is expected to carry its own specific citation of source. (For instance, a statement that the Civil War began in 1861 would be “public knowledge” because that date is easily found in an array of sources; no source needs to be cited. However, a statement that a certain individual enlisted in a specific unit on a certain day is not public knowledge and must be supported by a reliable source.) Undocumented works are usable for clues but are never considered “proof.”
They also refer potential applicants to a "Style Guide." The Style Guides section of the FAQ are also instructive:
41. Question: Does it really matter what “style guides” I use for writing and citing? As style and reference guides, Genealogy Standards recommends Chicago Manual of Style's ("humanities style,” not “scientific style”) and Evidence Explained! Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (which covers many original record types not handled by CMS). I have published genealogical articles in two major peer-reviewed journals, one in genealogy and one in another academic field. Each of those had its own preferred style. Would those peer-reviewed articles be acceptable "sample work products" to submit at renewal? 
Answer: Different journals, publishers, and fields do have different style preferences that reflect their needs—often economy or certain situations that exist in their research areas. When submitting work to any press, writers are expected to follow the prescribed style of that press. However, even when major scholarly journals publish abbreviated citations, the research they publish will have undergone extensive peer-review and fact-checking to ensure that it meets standards of the field. 
BCG welcomes work samples of a genealogical nature that have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Several examples, from a variety of genealogical journals, appear at this "Sample Work Products" link. Your judges will make their own evaluations of everything you submit, based upon their own expertise, but they would not "penalize" you for the fact that your published material reflects the particular house-style of a journal. In order for them to better evaluate your own work, most judges would prefer that you also include a copy of your manuscript, as you submitted it, as well as the final, edited publication. 
When you submit either unpublished work or published work samples from genealogical magazines that allow you to choose your own presentation styles, BCG's judges would expect you to cite your sources fully by the standards of its recommended guides.
So, the answer is The Chicago Manual of Style, currently in its 16th edition (I realized I am one edition behind in my own copy)

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

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2012.

which is currently in its second edition (another wake up call, I have the first edition). 

Of course, I already knew that different journals, publishers and fields have different style preferences when I began this post. If I continued on with my examples, all it show would be that each one of the publications is different than the others. 

So, here I am, a lone genealogist out here in genealogyland and what am I supposed to do with my citations? What if I have absolutely no aspirations of ever publishing anything anywhere much less in some prestigious genealogy journal? How am I even going to be able to begin to understand or even become aware of the hundreds of pages of instructions in the the two books cited above? Maybe I begin to wonder why there is such a big deal made about citations at all if even the various organizations and publications of genealogy stuff can't agree? 

1 comment:

  1. If a citation is to be of any value, the reader must follow the citation to source and read the original entry.

    Perhaps before making rules about citations one should ask do readers/researchers actually follow the citation or are they satisfied that a citation has been made.

    I suspect, but have not investigated, that readers are reassured when they see a citation and do not bother to follow it up assuming as the citation is there the "fact" must be accurate.