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 Ancestry.com of one of the many Tanner surname books:
This is an exact copy from Ancestry.com with the spacing and typos. Here is another form of citation from the same entry from Ancestry.com:
Now the question here is a little bit obscure, is Ancestry.com 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 Ancestry.com collection:
Who printed the book? I'm sorry, but that information is missing. By the way, the exact same book is also in FamilySearch.org's Books, which has three different digitized copies of the same book. Here is the citation from FamilySearch.org:
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.
Original Publisher: [S.l.] : Tanner Family Association
Provenance: Owning Institution:Genealogical Society of Utah d.b.a FamilySearch; http://www.familysearch.org/
Patron Usage Instructions: https://www.familysearch.org/terms; 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 Ancestry.com or on FamilySearch.org really doesn't matter. What does matter is that there is a reference to the book. In fact, WorldCat.org 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 FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com 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 FamilySearch.org:
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 FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com 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 Ancestry.com's version, is the equivalent of being a library. But wait a minute. Do we even know if Ancestry.com digitized the book? Not really. Both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org 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 FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com or Geni.com 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.