Earlier this year, several bloggers discussed the importance of citing your sources. While I have not taken the time to compile a full list of these blog entries (though I may still do so), I wanted to respond to some of the comments.
But first I would like to discuss where the conversation started and where it went. Especially since I believe that the blog posts were a response to comments that I made on a genealogy mailing list. On 6 Feb 2011, a researcher posted a question asking for help with a tricky citation. A handful of people, including myself, offered assistance. Two of us then had a brief debate about whether a comma or a semicolon was appropriate in a given position in this citation.
You can read this entire exchange in the archives of the Transitional Genealogists Forum on Rootsweb.com. But if you are going to read it, please read the entire exchange. It may bore the pants off of you, but it is important for the context. It is also important to note that this debate occurred on the “Transitional Genealogists Forum” mailing list. This is by no means a beginners’ mailing list. The list is described on the Rootsweb site as, “a mailing list for anyone who is on the road to becoming a professional Genealogist. It is a place to share experiences, problems, obstacles, downfalls and triumphs… [emphasis added].” In other words, if there is going to be a place for discussion of punctuation in a source citation, this would be the place to have it.
What Came Next?
On 11 February 2011, the post “I Don’t Care Where You Put the Comma” appeared on Amy’s Genealogy, etc. Blog. Is it a mere coincidence that this post appeared mere days after a debate over the placement of a comma? Not too likely. But I don’t mind. It is important to have open discourse over issues within genealogy, just as in any other field. Without open discourse, progress is not made.
The post read, in part,
During one of the [Rootstech] sessions, a person on Twitter commented that there were people who thought traditional (read “scholarly”) source citations were too hard and cumbersome. They wanted to enter one line and be done. A short discussion followed on Twitter about why this is and don’t people want to have good research.
Let’s stop for a moment and consider the two purposes of a source citation:
- To allow the researcher and others to find the source of the information being reported.
- To aid the researcher and others in evaluating that source.
To those ends, I say: I don’t care where you put the comma. Just tell me where you got the information. …
I believe that we as genealogical professionals are being counterproductive when we push so hard for what we call a “good” citation. Let’s not forget that for most people, genealogy is a hobby — a serious hobby, but it’s still supposed to be enjoyable. Scholarly source citations probably brings back nightmares of late-night term paper writing in high school and college.
Wouldn’t the field be better off if instead of harping on “good” citations — what you italicize, what you put in quotation marks, where you put the comma — we focus our efforts on getting researchers simply to have source citations? Wouldn’t we be better off if someone had “Graham’s History of Fairfield and Perry Counties, Ohio, (pub. 1883), page 452″ instead of nothing? That citation is far from perfect — it’s missing some key publishing information and doesn’t follow any established style — but I maintain that it is much better than nothing.
This post was followed by a long list of “Amen” and “Halleluia” comments. Until you get to the comment I left:
What you are dealing with here are three levels of researcher, I think.
First are those who don’t cite sources at all. We can preach CITE, CITE, CITE to them all day until they get it. From what I can tell, this is the main audience who will benefit from your article.
Second are those who understand the need to cite, but aren’t quite sure how to do it. This group will also benefit from your article as it may get them over the hump–the fear of “not getting it right”–that at times stifles their whole-hearted desire to properly cite their sources.
The last group are those who understand the need to cite, but also understand the purpose of using a specific, consistent format. Those in this last group will disagree to some extent with your article.
When I first started writing years ago, one of the most consistent pieces of advice I heard from other writers, read in writers magazines and books on writing, was “Just write. You can edit it later.” This is a good attitude to have toward source citation. However, merely having all of the elements is not the finished product of a source citation. You have to format them in a clear, consistent manner. Where you put a comma or a semi-colon is as important in a citation as it is in any other sentence. You may simply pour your thoughts out onto paper in the text of your family history, but you will be sure to hit the spell-check and fix grammar mistakes before too long. Why do source citations not deserve the same treatment?
Furthermore, by using a consistent format, any readers–either intentional, such as writing for a journal or magazine, or unintentional, such as your own children or grandchildren who may come across your notes years from now–will be able to follow the citation. As a professional genealogist who has worked on hundreds of client projects, I have seen many “research reports” that the clients prepare to summarize their research. Many of these reports cite sources for all of their information. Unfortunately, they do not follow a consistent format, and in many cases, these citations take quite a bit of time to decipher in order to discover what source was actually used. In quite a few cases, the “citation” was so undecipherable as to almost defeat the purpose of including a citation: “To allow the researcher and others to find the source of the information being reported” and “To aid the researcher and others in evaluating that source.”
If the elements of a citation do not follow a consistent format, how can anyone know for sure, for example, which element is which. For books and other published material, such as the examples you gave, it is fairly easy to decipher, but what about a specific item in a file that is part of a specific record group as part of a larger collection? Even if all of these elements are present, what order are they in? What punctuation separates the various elements, some of which may be rather complex and contain punctuation of their own?
The other consideration, aside from later reading of the citation by yourself or others, is the process of writing the citation itself. If you consistently follow a specific format, then creating citations in this format becomes second nature. Then, you won’t have to run to your favorite citation guide to look up every new record group or record format to come up with exactly how to write this citation. It will become habit.
This comment sums up how I feel about the whole “comma” issue, but I want to take the time to respond more fully (even though it has been a few months). Read the next few posts over the next few days for more on this subject.