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

Saturday, August 23, 2014

I Respectfully Disagree

A few days ago, The Blog@Evidence Explained, Quick Tips blog had a short post entitled, "It's Not Just about Giving Credit Where Due." I read and re-read the post because I couldn't quite agree with the analysis. The argument made seemed to focus on a detail of citation, that is, including the publisher in the citation. However, I disagree with the post's extension of the term "publisher." I think use of this term implies a degree of involvement not present in the examples given. Although, this entire issue is really more of an academic exercise than of particularly genealogical concern, there is an attitude expressed that wants to impose an additional requirement on "serious genealogists" (my term). 

The post equates "online provider" (its term) with the term "publisher." By equating the term, the author would put identifying the online provider (whatever that means) and the publisher of a book. First of all, I must say that I have been including the publisher of a book, when known, in my citations since high school and that is now a long time ago. I guess I never really thought there was any controversy over whether or not to include the publisher of a book in a citation. For example, if I were to cite the Evidence Explained book, it would look something like this:

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007.

Here are several more examples for good measure:

Mills, E. S. (2007). Evidence explained: Citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. 2007. Evidence explained: citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co.

MILLS, E. S. (2007). Evidence explained: citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace. Baltimore, Md, Genealogical Pub. Co.

Mills, Elizabeth S. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007. Print.

I have also been taught to put the title of the book in italics, although that does not seem to be such a big issue today. If you were inclined to do so, you could spend your time arguing about which of these different formats were the most acceptable for genealogists. In order, for your information, the formats are Turabian, APA, Chicago, Harvard, and MLA. I should also point out that only a very few genealogical software programs and online citation systems in the online family tree programs, provide a format that follows any one of these particular citation formats. Usually, there are simply places to fill in some general information. For example, here is a citation from of one of the many Tanner surname books: Descendants of John Tanner : born August 15, 1778, at Hopkintown, R.I., died April 15 1850, at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake Coun [database on-line]. Provo, UT: The Generations Network, Inc., 2005.

This is an exact copy from with the spacing and typos. Here is another form of citation from the same entry from

Tanner, Maurice,. Descendants of John Tanner : born August 15, 1778, at Hopkintown, R.I., died April 15 1850, at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah. unknown: The Tanner Family Association, 1923.

Now the question here is a little bit obscure, is more like a library or is it more like the publisher of the book. In this case, the publisher is marked as "unknown" but the book is attributed to The Tanner Family Association, located in South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah. 

Here is a screenshot of the title page of the book from the collection:

Who printed the book? I'm sorry, but that information is missing. By the way, the exact same book is also in's Books, which has three different digitized copies of the same book. Here is the citation from
Descendants of John Tanner, born August 15, 1788, at Hopkintown, R. I., died April 15, 1850, at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah 
Author: Tanner, Maurice, 1889- 
Description: Compiled family history. Includes index. Indexed in the Early Church information card file at the main library only.

Language: English;English;English
Original Publisher: [S.l.] : Tanner Family Association

Provenance: Owning Institution:Genealogical Society of Utah d.b.a FamilySearch;

Patron Usage Instructions:; Public

Title Number: 19703
This looks less like a "citation" and more like a catalog entry in a library. 

OK, so you got this far in my commentary and you are saying to yourself, who cares? My point exactly. Here is the crucial question. Who published the John Tanner book? What is the purpose of the citation? If you were trying to publish a genealogical journal article in a major publication, you would have to "jump through their hoops" and conform to whatever citation style they required. Does that mean that genealogists in general, especially those with no aspirations to publishing serious academically oriented or professionally oriented journal articles need to conform to one format or another? As I have said many times before, the emperor has no clothes. The idea of a citation in keeping your genealogy is to identify where you got the information so someone else can find it. In the case of the John Tanner book, whether you had a physical paper copy, viewed the book on or on really doesn't matter. What does matter is that there is a reference to the book. In fact, shows that this same book is in 49 difference libraries in 9 different editions. 

What if there are different publishers of the same book? Is that what we are talking about here? Well, then I would show the publisher of the book that I used. But are and with their digitized copies of the original book, different publishers? Not at all. They have a copy of exactly the same book. Here is a copy of the title page of the John Tanner book from one of the copies on

The same exact book. In fact, as a photographer and having scanned books and documents by the hundreds of thousands, I can see from the images of the two title pages, that they are exactly the same digitized copy of the book. They have the same "artifacts," that is defects in the scan that show up as dots etc. Here is another copy of the book page with arrows pointing to what I am talking about:

So aren't and more like libraries? I think so. What does it matter which library had my book? 

The post cited above argues that putting a copy of the book online is the equivalent of "publishing" the book. The post also dismisses, without discussion, that the online repository of the book, such as's version, is the equivalent of being a library. But wait a minute. Do we even know if digitized the book? Not really. Both and could have gotten the digitized copy from the same source which certainly looks like the case. But if we switch to a purely genealogical document such as a copy of a U.S. Census record, it is entirely possible that all or some of the online copies came from the same digitizing source. But by simply acquiring a copy of the U.S. Census, the online service provider does not assume the position of a publisher. 

If I refer to a record in the U.S. Census, what do you need to know to find that same record? In reality, all you really need to know is that is was part of the U.S. Census. As a genealogist, rather than worry about formatting an "correct" citation to the source, why don't I just include a link to that source? Like I would in or or or or in my own genealogy program. Or better yet, why not attach a digitized copy of the page to my ancestor in all these programs so you can see the same document. Do you really care if the image came from a specific online database? If you have a copy of the book or article attached, then everyone can find it and any particular format of citation is superfluous. If the document were on a microfilm, I would like to know where you got the microfilm, but I would never consider the microfilm repository to be a publisher of the information on that microfilm. In fact, what I would prefer is that you use any one of the microfilm scanners and provide a copy of the record you are using. 

Now, if you do have aspirations of publishing your findings in any one of the genealogy journals, then I suggest you get a copy of their style sheet or publication requirements and study it carefully and conform. If you are writing a Masters Thesis or a Doctoral Dissertation, you have the same challenge: conform, conform, conform. But for the rest of us out here in genealogy land, just be sure to give enough information about where you got your data so that I can go back and verify the source. Thanks. 


  1. There's one other factor worth considering. A big part of genealogy for me is sharing my work. When I've put all the effort in to do thorough research, I'd like people to view it with credibility. To do that the quality has to be self-evident. The source citations are a big part of that. A proper source citation helps demonstrate the care and attention I've put into the effort. It's like spelling errors. Spelling errors may not matter--the content is still there, but a lot of people will infer that a carelessly spelled write-up reflects careless work overall. For me, going to the extra effort to put a citation into the proper format is minor if it add credibility to my work. Maybe the citation format shouldn't matter, but it does to a lot of people.

    1. I agree with your comments. I am certainly not disparaging a proper citation of authority. My point is that worry about citations should not deter people from researching their family history. As I noted, citations have their place but they are not the end product of our family history research.

  2. Having a few high school students whose English teachers insist on proper MLA style bibliographies, we find ourselves coming to this web site often: for its discussion of MLA standards. Regarding an on-line book, its has this to say:

    “How do I cite a book that I accessed online in MLA? 
    “The following information comes from page 187 [how big is this “style sheet”?] of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. If you are citing a work on the Web that has a previous or concurrent publication in print, your citation should include the following:

    “1. Begin the entry as you would any book cited: Author Last Name, First
name. Title of Book. Location of publisher: Name of publisher, year of
    For more information on this from the Purdue OWL, please click here. 

    “2.Follow the above with the title of the database or Web site (in italics)
where the book is hosted.

    "3. Include the medium of the publication consulted (Web)

    “4. Include the dates of access (DD Mth. YYYY)


“The following is an example from the MLA Handbook:

    "Cascardi, Anthony J. Ideologies of History in the Spanish Golden Age.
University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1997. Pennsylvania State Romance Studies. Web. 12 Mar. 2007.”

    So the MLA style standard setters, whoever they are, consider an on-line source for a copy of a book as a repository, like a library, not a publisher.

    One side note, when our oldest was a high school freshman, you were also suppose to include the web address in the citation. By the time our third one was, that had been dropped in recognition of the fact that web addresses change so frequently.

    I have always thought that the main reason for including so much information in a citation was so other people can find the same work and check the information themselves. Including the publisher does help in that effort to track down a copy. Several years ago the only way I was able to obtain a copy of a book that had a lot of information about by wife’s family was to write directly to the publisher and buy one of their few remaining copies.

    Why include the web site at all? If the book was not scanned but rather typed in or, even worse, entered with OCR, there may be all sorts of typographical errors in the on-line version that you don’t want to be blamed for in the passages you quote.

    You mention that including an image of a book page or document might just negate the need for any citation. Unfortunately, in these days of photoshop fakery, I doubt that will ever be the case.

    As a final side note, I think the issue with italics is that so often you can’t use them. I suspect when I paste this into your blog the italics in the above quote will vanish. Which is a shame. It was so nice that when computer word processing came along and one could go back to using real italics instead of having to underline titles when using a typewriter. Now a lot of online source data entry systems won’t let you do either.

  3. While I basically agree that getting a citation of evident quality is important, I would ask - evident to who? If the audience skills level is mixed then the danger is that the sophisticated citation will be unintelligible to the average reader. It is not, for instance, remotely obvious that an italicised title means anything different from one in quotes. Why not write out in full what is meant? We don't need to save on disk space. We can use copy and paste. And if we wrote out a fuller story, then the need to decide whether Ancestry is a publisher or a repository might vanish if we just wrote the facts.

    1. Good idea and comment. I don't think you can put in too much. I suggest a digitized copy of the title page and a link to the original online document if one exists.

  4. My understanding is that the online provider is not just like a library because they may be providing a digital copy that is someway changed from the original published book. There are so many mistakes in scanning. For example, pages can be left out or covered up. If you don't know who made the digital copy available, you can't look at it and figure out if it is truly an exact copy or not. Because there are so many organizations doing the scanning, we do get books that are exactly the same and the only visible difference may be that one still had that referenced map inside the back cover and the other doesn't. I think the controversy is caused because a digital provider can be a mix of "publisher" and "library". We are trying to classify something as an apple or an orange when really it's kind of a rambutan.

    1. What you describe may be the case with a book that has been changed to text, but many online books are PDF copies of the original paper book, such as those on Google Books. The two books I use as examples above are the same PDF copy of the same book on two websites.