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…