Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part one

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 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:

  1. To allow the researcher and others to find the source of the information being reported.
  2. 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.

12 thoughts on “Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part one

  1. Having never read any of the posts on the Transitional Genealogists Forum, I can assure you that the timing of my post “I Don’t Care Where You Put the Comma” was, in fact, a coincidence. (Those do happen from time to time!)

    Please note that nowhere in my post or in any of the comments I made did I say that proper, standardized formats were unimportant for published materials. (Being a Certified Genealogist, plus writing numerous papers during my undergrad work and in grad school, I fully appreciate a good source citation and know how useful they are to those who are reading them.)

    My point was that people should not be scared off by the thought of misplacing a comma. Would I like it if everyone cited everything fully and in a consistent manner? Of course! But realistically, I know that’s not going to happen. I would much rather see misplaced commas and missing semi-colons than not have any citation at all. I have had people tell me on numerous occasions that they don’t bother with citations because they think they are too complicated and are “only for professionals.” Those are the people we need to reach — get them to understand why a citation is necessary in the first place. We can work on the commas later.

    • Well, I am relieved to discover that the post was not, in fact, directed at me (and my cohorts). But you must admit the timing was impeccable! ; )

      I did not mean to imply that your post was intended to take the emphasis off of the importance of source citations. However, judging by some of the comments by others (not yours), I do think that some understood your post as taking the emphasis off of *standardized* source citations. I remarked myself that your post would be extremely helpful for those who either do not care about citing their sources in any way, as well as those who do understand the importance of citation but are “scared off” by the fact that citations seem so daunting.

      However, I think that as professionals and genealogical educators, we should teach people not only the importance of citing sources, but also emphasize the importance of the form. Will some be turned off? Possibly, but I think that if we start to concede in our standards, then they will not be taken seriously. I understand that baby steps are important, but those taking them should at least know that they are baby steps–that they are not the destination.

      In other words, wouldn’t it be better to promote understanding of *how* to properly cite sources, rather than telling people it’s ok to do it however they want, just as long as they do it?

  2. I was the person who posted the original question. The debate you referred gave me an entirely different perspective on source citations. It was my first lesson in how to craft a citation. Previously, I relied on the models in Elizabeth Shown Mills “Evidence Explained” to compose citations. “Evidence Explained” is the most comprehensive and authoritative volume on the subject of citations. It is the “must-have” resource for genealogists. EE is at my side each time I sit down to write a citation. I could not do without it. However,the debate over a mere comma made me realize that genealogy can and does present unique situations that require thoughtfulness and creativity. Having a good working knowledge of citation rules is the key to crafting a good citation. The debate made me realize that I needed to work toward a better understanding of punctuation and citation rules.

    • Elizabeth,

      I honestly respect your desire to form proper citations, which is why I always try to assist when I can.

      Elizabeth Shown Mills, the autor of Evidence Explained has always stated that the models in the book are precisely that: models. Not every possible variation of each record has been examined in the book. Quite simply that would be impossible. But each of the book’s models stems from the same basic rules of citation. Fully grasping the rules is not an easy task, but one day the light bulb will go off over your head (and everyone else with your desire to learn). Once this happens, you will be able to craft citations with as much knowledge as Ms. Mills herself!

  3. I am looking forward to that light bulb moment! I must admit that particular citation, which I toiled over for days set me on the right path.

  4. Pingback: Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part two « Planting the Seeds

  5. Pingback: Comparative research standards: National Park Service Cultural Resource Management « Planting the Seeds

  6. Pingback: So, are you ready for certification? « Planting the Seeds

  7. Pingback: Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part four « Planting the Seeds

  8. Pingback: Source Citation Blog Posts – the Link List (31 Weeks to a Better Genealogy Blog, Week 7) « Planting the Seeds

  9. Pingback: Why citation software should be avoided « Planting the Seeds

  10. Pingback: The Genealogy Blogiverse Speaks on Sources - Family Tree

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s