Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part two

In an earlier post, I mentioned a discussion on the Transitional Genealogists Forum mailing list regarding a comma vs. a semicolon within a source citation. This discussion was followed, apparently coincidentally, by several blog posts related to the importance of form in source citations. (I originally, mistakenly, believed that this was not a coincidence at all, but was corrected by the author of the first such blog post.)

Two related blog posts appeared in other blogs shortly after the first.

On 16 February 2011, Kerry wrote in the post “Source Citations in Genealogy: Church or Cult?,” in her Clue Wagon blog,

Source citations are important. I believe this.

What I don’t believe in is the Cult of Citations. The Cult is different from the Church. The Cult is so intense that it freaks people out. It accepts no compromise, no continuum, no baby steps. It will say in public that people who don’t agree are wrong wrong WRONG. Nobody wants to join a cult, and when people see members of the Cult, they run. They run far and fast, so that the cult can’t catch them. The problem is that when they run, the Church can’t catch them either. So they remain unsaved heathens who don’t cite their sources.

Now, why would that be a good thing?

And the thing is, the members of the Cult of Citations are right. They’ve worked hard for the past 30 years to clean up the field, and they’ve done an admirable job (truly). They’re upset that there’s still so much crap out there. They’re upset that after all that work, the internet has allowed the pile of crap to grow exponentially. They’re upset that people are poo-pooing the idea that nobody can appreciate your hard work on your tree if they can’t evaluate where the information came from. They’re right when they say that we all need to cite sources in the same standard way, with the stuff in the same order, so that it’s not a big sloppy mess. Cult members: You’re right. You’re right on every point. I’m not arguing with you.

But when you are condescending, people run away. When you express your frustration with the nonbelievers in public, people run away. When you say, “The comma goes here, not THERE. That was 1972,” people run away. When you imply that every source must be in the perfect Evidence Explained format from the get-go, people run away. And when they run away, they don’t come back. We lose them. And then we have crap trees with no sources, and it’s our own fault. People who aren’t yet saved see that gleam in your eyes, and they become hypersensitive to what you say. They know you’re trying to convert them, and they don’t like it (even though they really do need converting). They think you’re making things hard. They don’t understand your zeal. …

See, when I talk to people about why they hate citations, I find that it’s not the gathering of the citation information they hate. It’s the formatting. People find that getting it in the right format is hard, and they don’t want to do it. We need to make it abundantly clear that it’s okay to sin in your own files in terms of the formatting. It’s okay if the page number and the publisher date are reversed, as long as you have the citation information. The goal is to be able to find the stuff again…not to be a formatting saint. It would be delightful if everyone’s files had perfect citations in them, but they don’t, and by implying that that’s even an appropriate goal, we’re losing people. It’s not working.

The other thing I think we need to stop doing is talking about the mechanics of citations on all of the well-known public listservs. Way, WAY more people read those than I ever imagined (far more that the subscriber numbers would indicate, I believe). When they see the dialog about citations and semicolon placement, they get the idea that that’s all the glitterati cares about. They see people rigorously debating how a citation would appear, and even when the people involved know each other and are fine with the tenor of the dialog, to an outsider, it can appear contentious. I know that that’s not always true, but the perception is definitely out there. Beginning and intermediate genealogists see those discussions, and they’re intimidated. They turn away. It’s not working. If I were crowned queen, I’d create a list just for source citation questions. That way, the semicolon placement specialists could parse their brains out, and we could all benefit from their wisdom…without having a disproportionate emphasis on the mechanics of source citations on the professional lists. People who truly need help could get it, and we could make sure that we aren’t overwhelming people who aren’t yet members of the Church (and in fact, I think most real churches keep their doctrine discussions fairly private for that very reason).

Later, on 17 March 2011, The Ginger Jewish Genealogist posted “Jewish Genealogy – The Anti-Cult?” In this post, she wrote,

Go to an IAJGS conference (International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies) and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who has heard of Evidence Explained or knows what the Genealogical Proof Standard is. Sure, there are a few that do; those who have been in professional genealogy for a long time, the rare certified or accredited genealogist in the crowd, or someone from outside the Jewish genealogy world who’s “visiting” us that year. There might even be a vendor selling copies of EE. But the general population of attendees has no idea. …

Clients don’t care about source citations. I have never had a client ask me where I found a record, or where I searched and didn’t find a record. Of course, this information is already in their client reports. With the exception of the one company that requested EE-type citations (and they completed them for me), other genealogists I’ve worked for also seem to be unconcerned with detailed source citations. The most I’ve been asked (only once) was, “On what film did you find the record?”, to which I replied, “It’s in the file name.” Ever since NGS, I have added that information to all my scanned file names and been a little more specific with my sources, but still not remotely up to EE standards.

I am obsessive about keeping track of my sources for my own research and my clients. If I add a person or an event to my own database, there is a source for it. Just like everyone else, some of my earlier work had no sources, but everything was eventually given a source in one of my revisions.

While some genealogists may freak out when they read that I don’t follow these rules, I hope they realize that I do have citations for everything, just not in their style. If it wasn’t important enough to mention at the IAJGS conferences, I didn’t much pay attention even if I saw it online, and I just haven’t switched over. That doesn’t make me a bad genealogist, it just means I don’t follow all the “rules”. I can check any information in my database to find the source, whether it was from a primary document, a census, or from a relative, to compare with any new information and determine what source should be more trusted.

Will I ever change my source citations to the EE-style? Possibly. But not today.

I’m not sure that I like the analogy of a cult vs. a church. Because I may be considered part of the cult. I admit that I will (and have, as the TGF discussion proves) debate the placement of a comma or period or semicolon, whether something should be capitalized or italicized, or placed in quotation marks or parentheses. In my experience, these issues are far more important than some might realize.

The difference comes in experience, I believe. Not the number of years of experience per se, but the variety of records with which one has experience researching and citing. If you are citing a journal article or a book, the citation can seem plain and straightforward. It is not difficult to tell which element is which, and any old citation will allow the article or book to be located. For many amateur genealogists, most of their research is conducted in articles and books, so this will do. There is simply no need to learn how to develop proper citations when you only use a few types of sources. To these genealogists, the placement of a comma or semicolon is indeed tedious.

Once you start using microfilmed or online digitized records, the citations become a little more complex, but the format still does not seem all that important. As long as the reel number or the website URL are included, the source can be found, so it appears sufficient.

The problem starts to arise when you begin dealing with original records, which may be parts of multiple sub-groups as parts of larger collections of records held under an even larger record group. There is no easy author/title, microfilm reel number, or URL that can easily identify this record. So how do you accurately and fully identify this record?

You can “wing it,” of course. Just make up your own format on the spot, and record your improvised citation.

Now imagine that twenty years have passed, and you decide to go back and check your own work. Can you make sense of your own citation? Unless you have an impeccable memory, the answer will probably be no.

Or suppose you get stuck at a brick wall and decide to hire a professional. How is that professional to be expected to identify the source that you used? Will you be able (and have the time) to explain to the professional your makeshift citation format?

Wouldn’t it be easier and more efficient in the long run to simply take the time to learn a consistent format for source citations that everyone can understand?

This discussion will be continued…

15 thoughts on “Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part two

  1. I think the Jewish genealogist shot herself in the foot in her last paragraph. She explained that she doesn’t need to use THEIR citation styles. Who are THEY? EE is based on the humanities style as demonstrated in the Chicago Manual of Style. Just like good grammatical structure–there are certain rules we follow. The icing on the cake was her reference to “primary” documents and then census records. What is a primary document? Perhaps, an original record or copy of an original record? Wouldn’t a page from the US federal census be a “primary” document in her world? (If I’m translating correctly.) This confusion is the perfect example of why we discuss citations and the GPS. I’m wondering if she has created a novel way of numbering her genealogies also.

    • Michael, I understand your points. Possibly because I do my research at the FHL and deal more with microfilm than anything else, I don’t feel the need to figure out how to list all the specifics of the sources into EE-style citations, yet. My source is the microfilm and not the book or documents that were filmed, in what archive they are held, in which collection, etc. Thus, with the film number (and a short description of its contents) along with section, record number, page number, or something identifying, as long as the film still exists, I should be able to find the record again. (I think if something were to wipe out the Granite Vault, we’d have more pressing matters to deal with than source citations.)

      Rondina, I’m confused by your response. You seem to be such a stickler for specifics, but several of your sentences don’t make sense to me. And since your comment is attacking my blog post, instead of Michael’s, I think I have the right to respond.

      1. Nowhere in my last paragraph — or my penultimate paragraph, actually — did I specify THEIR or THEY so blindly without saying who I meant: “some genealogists [who] may freak out” by my lack of EE-style citations.

      2. I don’t know what censuses you’ve looked at, but I’ve found too many mistakes in them to trust all of the information without further research. Technically they are primary documents, written “at the time of the event”, but just because the family was counted doesn’t mean one of them was present at the time to give the correct information to the census taker. I have seen incorrect information in every census column at one time or another.

      3. Saying, “If I’m translating correctly” to a statement made in English… I don’t even have the words.

      4. Who is this “we” that discusses citations and the GPS? Clearly you don’t mean IAJGS attendees, because I think I was pretty clear that I was referring to attendees of that conference. 2010 was the first year I attended any other genealogy conference besides that one.

      I think I’ll leave off my thoughts about your comment on numbering my genealogies, although, now that you’ve got me thinking about it, maybe I should use Hebrew numbers…

      • Thanks for responding. For me, blogging is a perfect medium for public discourse. This works better if we disagree–makes for a better conversation! : )

        So if I understand what you are saying, you do not consult any records that are not microfilmed by the FHL? To me this is a whole ‘nother issue altogether. Good, I needed a topic for tomorrow’s blog post. ; )

        I have never been to the IAJGS conference, but I did spend quite a bit of time looking through this year’s schedule because it is being held in my hometown of Washington DC. This conference is quite different from the NGS and FGS conferences. For one, I believe that, because this is an international conference, more attention seems to be placed on “workshops” that are specific to various international locations.

        Furthermore, this conference, like a few others (such as the AAHGS National Conference, the Palatines to America conference, etc., the Mid-Atlantic Germanic Society conference), has a very specific focus on a specialty. Though there may be a couple of methodology lectures, the majority of the lectures and workshops tend to focus on their individual specialties. In other words, they are responsible for teaching about the specialty. Learning the basics (such as creating a research plan, evidence analysis, source citation, and other aspects of the GPS) is each individual researcher’s own responsibility. The NGS and FGS conferences, on the other hand, seek to attract researchers of all levels. Teaching basic methodology is great for less experienced researchers while teaching advanced methodology might be better for more advanced researchers.

        The fact that lectures on basic methodology are not features of specialized conferences, in my opinion, should not be taken to mean that the basic methodology is not necessary to learn. Only that it is not a goal of these specialized conferences. For more on this, see my post “Shouldn’t we all be ‘Primary Care Genealogists’?”:

  2. Interesting! Chicago Style, MLA, APA can all be easily followed by using free online citation engines. I haven’t found EE without any “strings”. Wouldn’t it be easy to encourage the use of EE citation standards, by offering easy access to the tools needed?

    We all know that standards are needed; they’re not just for clients, but for future research. I often work with what I call “dumped citation,” – no format but clear enough information to easily locate the source. I’m ok with this, just give me what I need, and I don’t want to decode anything!
    Then again, there’s little more frustrating than poor citations with poorly supported data. Clients do notice. Currently I’m redoing, substantiating, and disproving a 700+ page work written by a genealogist/cultural anthropologist. The CLIENT wants verification and “proof” of comments and summations. Unfortunately, the client is having to pay twice for a job that could have been done correctly the first time.
    I’m not an EE expert and need to constantly review. But might I encourage all researchers, of any field, to ask yourself, “What if I need to find this in 10 years?” Good citation, just makes sense, and knowing and properly using the proper tool for the job is beneficial.

    • I think many of the more recent genealogy software programs like TMG v7 and RootsMagic 4 have specifically tried to create templates for citing sources in EE style. Unfortunately, unlike MLA, APA, etc., all of which deal with primarily published material, EE deals with a lot of unpublished material, all of which need to be cited in slightly different ways. As Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of Evidence Explained [ED – as if she needed further introduction], says quite often, citation is an art. There are many records that simply don’t fit into a set template. There are variations on certain themes, etc., all of which take the special care of an actual person’s eyes to cite properly. An automated citation engine simply won’t do.

      Of course I know that I am preaching to the choir here. ; )

  3. Michael, you said, “Learning the basics (such as creating a research plan, evidence analysis, source citation, and other aspects of the GPS) is each individual researcher’s own responsibility.”

    This is mostly correct. We always have a series on Sunday for beginners that I’m sure teaches some methodology; I’ve never yet attended so I don’t know details. Sometimes more methodology sneaks into other lectures. Most of the specialty topics you mentioned teach their own specialty methodology. For instance, a lecture on Polish research might discuss what records are available, what information is contained in them, how to get copies of them, or how to decipher them.

    When someone like me steps outside of the Jewish genealogy world, we learn there is a lot more going on. I sometimes wonder why these types of “advanced” methodology courses aren’t taught at IAJGS, but considering some of these recent blog posts, maybe it alienated beginners so they decided to suppress such topics. Or maybe they just never had them.

    And for the record, most of my work is done at the FHL, but I do consult other records. I order records from various archives when they are needed, use online sources, etc. Most of my clients want their European genealogies researched. (Some want to skip all US research, but I can usually convince them that a minimum amount is needed.)

    Eastern European research can be much more complicated than US research in many ways — getting the records is one of those ways. The FHL may or may not have records. If not, I usually suggest that clients find someone in-country. Some archives don’t share their material at all; some might if you go in person. Most won’t do any research. You’re lucky if their records have been indexed so you can order what you want.

    Thus, the FHL films are often the best and sometimes the only sources that I can use for research.

    • Just to clarify, when I use the term methodology, I don’t mean just what records are available and how to access them. This is an important part of research, of course. But too many genealogists think that finding the records is the most important part of research. (Banai – I am not directing that statement at you specifically.) When you are dealing with a lecture that focuses specifically on this aspect of research, then of course the rest of the methodology would be off-topic, to a certain extent. And this is primarily the kinds of lectures that are preferred at all specialized conferences, whether these focus on a particular ethnic group, location, or era (such as the Civil War or the American Revolution). These are the kinds of lectures that are in need for these specialized conferences; they are what the audience demands.

      Finding records is only one part of research, and only one part of methodology. It may take a more generalized conference to expose genealogists to the other aspects of research, specifically, what to do with the records once you have found them. How do you determine the reliability of the information in the record? (This may be addressed in some lectures about specific record groups.) How do you correlate the information held across several different records? How do you deal with conflicting information? How do you properly cite the records?

      I want to more specifically address some of your comments, however:

      “… most of my work is done at the FHL, but I do consult other records. I order records from various archives when they are needed, use online sources, etc.” – This now goes back to the original point of this blog post. To play devil’s advocate for just a moment: When you use FHL microfilm, the film number becomes the most important element to many citations, so the need for a uniform citation form becomes unnecessary. The same goes for online sources when you have the URL. On the other hand, when you order records from a distant repository, how do you cite that record? Do you have consistency among all of the records held by that repository? Suppose, for example, that you only need to order a single record from a certain repository for Project #1. Then a few months go by and you order a different record from that same repository for Project #2. Again, you order another record from that same repository for Project #3. Then the client from Project #1 comes back to you three years later, and you order two more records, from different record groups or collections, from that repository. If you do not use a consistent format for all of these records, how is anyone going to be able to accurately and instantly (that is, without doing significant research on their own) identify the records that you used?

      “Eastern European research can be much more complicated than US research in many ways — getting the records is one of those ways. … Thus, the FHL films are often the best and sometimes the only sources that I can use for research.” First, you are not describing a complication inherent to Eastern European research in that first sentence. You are describing difficulty in access to the original records. This is akin to my saying that Hawaiian research is more complicated than Delaware research because I live in Delaware and don’t have easy access to Hawaiian records. Furthermore, I fail to see how Eastern European research would be more complicated than researching an enslaved African American family in the pre-Civil War period in a burned Tennessee county. Except there may actually be far more records available for that Eastern European family than for the enslaved family. But all that is beside the point. Your conclusion that “FHL films are often the best and sometimes the only sources that I can use for research” simply does not follow from your previous comments. It may be true that they are the only sources that you have easy access to. But this does not make them the best. It makes them the most convenient. If you are researching a family from the Ukraine, for example, the records available through the FHL may be the most convenient and accessible records for a researcher living in the US. However, a researcher in the Ukraine would likely have access to records that are far better sources for information on that family. And that local researcher would not have to use the FHL microfilm at all.

      • There are other complications to European research, but I decided not to include an off-topic list. Another example would be language. Depending on the location and time period in Poland, records can be in Polish, Russian, German, and Latin, and work is usually conducted across at least two of those. I recently searched through records for a town in Latvia; the records were in German, then Russian, and then Latvian within just a ten year time frame. For another example, I was researching a city well within Russia, but the records were held in Ukraine. I know that changing borders happen everywhere, but they seem more extreme and less logical in Europe; sometimes records end up in strange places.

        You and I are in agreement on many of your points. Maybe I just didn’t emphasize the right things (because I thought the comment was long enough already).

        I said, “The FHL may or may not have records. If not, I usually suggest that clients find someone in-country.”

        Just as you stated in your last sentences, a researcher in-country would have access to more than I have in Utah, whether we need to search more years than what is on film, or if there is nothing on film for the location. When I have exhausted what I can access, it is time for someone else with different access to try. Just as you can’t go to Hawaii to spend hours searching records in the archive and would need to refer or subcontract someone for your client, I tell mine that they need someone local.

        And, “the FHL films are often the best and sometimes the only sources that I can use for research.”

        Perhaps the word *I* needed to be emphasized. I have not been to Europe yet so the best sources for me to work with are the ones I can access, exactly as we have both stated. When someone hires me to do research, I do what I can with what I can access. Some records are on film, some are indexed so I can order them. I cannot fly off to Europe every time something isn’t on film and, as I stated, most archives will not do research. These are the best sources for *me*. I am honest with my clients; when I can’t do more for them myself on a certain family, I let them know.

        As for citing these sources, I think I’ve done all right. My client reports have improved over the years, so an older one might not have as many details, but I think I can figure them out. I know I keep repeating it, but I got involved in Jewish genealogy because I was researching my own family first, and citing sources was never mentioned at IAJGS conferences. I’ve had to learn over time from other sources, such as the NGS conference that conveniently came to SLC last year so I could attend. (Just like you, I can’t afford to fly off for every conference either. But IAJGS is in DC this year, so you might consider dropping in if you have any interest.) As I’ve learned more and seen other genealogists’ reports (some better, some worse), I’ve learned from them and made my reports considerably better than when I began. Maybe someday my source citations will morph into something even you would approve of. For now, I find figuring out the EE-style citations too tedious to spend so much extra time on and would rather do more research for my clients. I don’t think they mind.

        Was there mention of web sites that can create the citation for me? (Or was that somewhere else I read today?) Please, share a URL. If something can take the tedious out of citations, I’d be happy to use them. But when I looked at EE for citing an FHL film, it wanted information not even listed in the catalog.

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  6. Michael and Banai:

    A reader just queried me about an issue Banai raised above, on 22 May at 1:51 pm. Allow me to share my response here, in hopes it helps someone else. (It’s a pretty good rule-of-thumb that if one person questions something, others are sitting there quietly wondering the same.)

    Banai wrote: “But when I looked at EE for citing an FHL film, it wanted information not even listed in the catalog.”

    Without a specific example, the general answer is this: That should not happen. The most basic rule of identifying our sources is that we cite what we use. By extension, that means we cite what we see. If we don’t see it, we can’t cite it.

    The issue here may lie in that reference to the FHL *catalog.* Sure, that catalog entry seems to provide a ready-made citation that will spare us the chore of analyzing the details and nature of the material on the film itself. But that thought’s a pipe dream, if we’re using *records* rather than plain-vanilla books.

    Five considerations are at play when we use *records* microfilmed by FHL—or when we use FHL copies of film produced by another archive. (All the stuff below is covered in EE at 2.3, 7.22, 7.38-7.39, and 10.23.)

    1. Despite rumors to the contrary, the real reason for a citation is not so we or somebody can find the stuff again. The most-important need is to identify the material in sufficient detail that we (and others who use our work) can evaluate the reliability of the *information* we take from that source. All of this is why, in using the film, we note whether the film reproduces an original register, a typescript, an index, or some other format or product. Sure, as we sit there at the film, we can make a judgment. But our judgment at first exposure to the material might not be sound, and we certainly can’t expect everybody else to accept our judgment. What’s needed, long after our memory of this record has gone cold, is thorough details about that record itself–not just what it says.

    2. It does not suffice to simply cite an FHL film number, because most FHL films have multiple items on the roll. Obviously, we have to be more explicit in describing *which* item we used. (Besides, if all we cite is an FHL film number, what happens if we make a typo?)

    3. When FHL creates a catalog description, it creates a *generic* description to cover all items on that roll. Rarely does it provide the exact title and all other necessary details for each individual item on that roll. ***Therefore, researchers should not take their citations from the FHL catalog.*** (This is a point I started including in my citation lectures early in this decade at the request of the FHL director, himself.)

    4. At the start of each microfilmed item on an FHL film, there should be either a filmer’s “target” (card) or a publisher’s title page and/or preface, with essential information about the item–what it is, what dates are covered, where the original was archived at the time the film was made, etc. This information will be far more explicit than the generic description given in the catalog entry for that film number.

    5. When the filmed material is an original register, it’s also wise to compare the details given on the “target” with any actual titles, dates, repository info, etc., that may appear on the register cover or spine. The target itself may be a generic one, with an identification different from what is on the register itself.

    All the FHL examples in EE come from points 4 or 5 above. Each is an example of “citing what you use” and each cites only what the user would have available right there at the film reader.

    Beyond this, as Michael pointed out, all record types have quirks. Record Set A may need us to record a certain set of elements. Record Set B may involve some (but not all) of those same elements and require some additional things to be noted. That is why EE offers more than 1100 examples for records in a dozen western countries–to help users find the closest equivalent to what they have at hand. The downside of this, of course, is that an 885-page book turns us glassy-eyed and we start thinking, FUGEDDABOUTIT!

    The best way to handle the intimation factor is this:

    A. Sit down and study the first two chapters, which cover all the basic principles. With that under our belt, every source we use from that point on will make a lot more sense.

    B. When using a new type of record, turn to the chapter for that type (church registers, censuses, military records, etc.).

    C. Read the first few numbered sections, to glean more-specific knowledge about that type.

    D. Check the chapter’s “title page” for a list of QuickCheck Models that might get you quickly to an example.

    E. (If no QuickCheck Model fits your problem), turn to the backside of the chapter’s title page and scan the list of “Guidelines & Examples” to get you quickly to a section that would cover your not-so-common record or its particular quirk.

    There’s also a very detailed index. The quirk that may be driving us crazy with a church record we’ve just found might be one that’s also common to, say, a vital record or a deed book. That quirk might be discussed in detail in one of those other chapters—and the same discussion definitely won’t be repeated for every record type. So if it’s a quirk that’s causing us to mutter things mama told us never to say, then check the index for the quirk, not just the record type.

    Hope this helps!

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