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

Monday, June 15, 2020

When is a source not a source?

Genealogists frequently use the term "source" apparently without any idea of its meaning. The dictionary definition is "a place, person, or thing from which something comes or can be obtained." See Google. If we want to get more academic or professional, we might not use the term "source" but instead, use the term "citation" or "citation of authority." There are a huge number of books and articles written about how to use "proper citations." Almost every magazine publisher, journal publisher, or book publisher has its own set of detailed instructions about how to form citations. For example, see the following:

Purdue Writing Lab. “In-Text Citations: The Basics // Purdue Writing Lab.” Purdue Writing Lab. Accessed June 15, 2020.

This particular citation was created using the APA Publication Manual. Here is a citation to the APA Publication Manual using the Chicago Manual of Style.

American Psychological Association (Washington, District of Columbia). 2020. Publication manual of the American Psychological Association.

and here is a citation for the Chicago Manual of Style using the Chicago Manual of Style. 

University of Chicago Press. 2017. The Chicago manual of style.

Think about these citations for a moment. As genealogists, we would like to know where you got your information. Superficially, these citations tell you, the reader, where I got my information but there is a major difference between a citation and a source. Without using a Google search (or using the internet at all) can you tell me where you would go to find any one or all of the books I cited in the somewhat silly introduction above? Could you also tell me which of the different style manuals I should be using as a genealogist? How about the following 892-page book?

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

If I were writing for one of the major genealogical journals, such as the following:

The American genealogist. 1999. [Warwick, R.I.]: [R.W. Sherman].

I would be expected to adhere to their style manual which by the way, is stated to be The Chicago Manual of Style. 

Hmm. What is going on here? This seems rather circular. I begin by writing about sources and end up writing about citation formats. It appears that I have lost sight of my first sentence; using the term "source" without understanding the meaning. What is lacking in each of the citations I provided above? (Hint: go back and read the definition of a source). What is lacking is anything about where I obtained the information except in the very first example, where I provided a citation that, by chance, included a link to the original document. The other "citations" did not tell you or me where I could find the information. Yes, I now know that books about styles exist, but where would I go to find the books? I happen to have copies of the Chicago Manual of Style and Evidence Explained sitting on the shelves in my bookcase. I would certainly use both if I were submitting an article for publication but what if I am providing a source citation for a genealogical event in an online family tree? Here is a citation to a book containing stories about some of my own ancestors. 

Parkinson, Diane, and John Parkinson. James Parkinson of Ramsey: His Roots and His Branches : England, Australia, America : A Biographical History and Genealogical Record of the Family of James and Elizabeth Chattle Parkinson. Austin, Tex.: Published for the James Parkinson Family Association by Historical Publications, 1987.

I am guessing that if you lived in the United States and you went to your local public library, you would find a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, maybe not the current edition but there be a copy in your library. I looked in the catalog for my own library and found the book quickly. But what about this Parkinson book? I have given you a perfectly good citation but where would you go to find a copy of this book to verify that I did, in fact, obtain my information from this book? Maybe you don't care if I am right or wrong and if so, I would probably guess that you have seldom if ever, verified the information in your own family tree by looking at the original sources, if they exist. 

So, my citation of the Parkinson book is a good citation but a lousy source. The Parkinson book in question is an example of a limited private printing and if the book were written about something other than genealogy, it might be considered a rare book. But here is the core issue. If I provide a citation, you have no real way of determining if I quoted the original accurately UNLESS I give you explicit information about how to obtain the book or other publication or record or document or whatever. 

In the academic and legal world, we don't care whether we tell our readers where we got the information so long as we have provided a citation. When I was involved in litigation as an attorney, I spent a huge amount of time looking up every citation to authority used by the opposing counsel, item by item. Part of the process was knowing where to look without spending a huge amount of time and effort. 

What is the easiest way to tell someone where you got the information in today's world? Provide a digital copy of the document, book page or etc. What about copyright? That is a real issue and causes unlimited amounts of grief for researchers. But if copyright is an issue, I may have to be satisfied with one additional bit of information. Here is the long Parkinson citation with that one piece of information. 

Parkinson, Diane, and John Parkinson. James Parkinson of Ramsey: His Roots and His Branches : England, Australia, America : A Biographical History and Genealogical Record of the Family of James and Elizabeth Chattle Parkinson. Austin, Tex.: Published for the James Parkinson Family Association by Historical Publications, 1987. Available at the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library in Provo, Utah. 

But what if you live a long distance from Provo? You can very likely use you local library's interlibrary loan process to obtain a copy of the book from any one of the four libraries that have a copy. 

How did I know where the book could be found (besides the copy on my own shelf)? I used to look up the book, entered my zip code, and had a list of libraries in about one second. 

I could also provide a digital copy of the documents I used to enter information about my ancestors either by uploading a copy of the document or I could provide an electronic link to the specific document in question. Almost every currently supported genealogy program provides a way to include a copy of the document or link to the document, if available, with the information you enter about your family. 

You also might find a copy of a book on, There is a copy of the Parkinson book selling on Amazon for about $75.00. 

Citations are very important for those who publish their material where a specific citation form is required. But for genealogical researchers, we need to know how or where we can find the document, record, book, or whatever. What if the information came from a living person now dead? So that is where it came from and I now know that I need to seek out additional source information if it is available. But if you do not tell me you information came from your now-dead grandmother, I have no idea how to begin to verify the information supplied. 

A citation provided without giving a source (i.e. where I can find the document or information) is not very helpful. 


  1. I have to somewhat disagree about the importance of including in a source citation a note stating where copies of that source can be obtained. I agree for something like a family Bible that is unique, one should cite where that source was located at the time that it was consulted.

    But you focused on a published source, the Parkinson family history, and for that I do not view it as important to list where one can view it unless there is something special about the particular copy you used.

    As you noted -- locations for the Parkinson history can be determined by using the Internet via OCLC's Worldcat. Libraries add and discard/weed books all the time. For example, the University of Utah's Marriott Library used to have a copy of a published family history that included my parents in it. Now it doesn't.

    1. You should at least mention where you found the book or other item. More information is better.

  2. 1. "How did I know where the book could be found (besides the copy on my own shelf)? I used to look up the book, entered my zip code, and had a list of libraries in about one second."

    And this is why I do not provide repositories for most books in my citations. Past a certain point, it is not my responsibility to guide the reader through every single step of the process of finding information, especially when that information is so easily searchable. Anyone who wants to see a book badly enough can look it up the way you did, purchase it, request it via interlibrary loan, or travel to consult it at a given library him- or herself. Anyone at all serious about doing research encounters these kinds of obstacles eventually.

    2. I think by "source" you mean "repository" in your last sentence. The source would be the book or document; the repository would be where it is housed and was accessed.

  3. Thanks for your comment, you are right about my last use of the word source.