… but we do need Evidence Explained.

[Please read “Why we don’t always need source citation templates …” before reading this post.]

Elizabeth Shown Mills’s 1997 book Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997) contains about 84 total pages of text, not including the Acknowledgment, Introduction, Bibliography, Appendixes, and Index. Of these 84 pages, 25 are contained in the chapter “Fundamentals of citation,” 19 are contained in the chapter “Fundamentals of analysis,” and 40 are contained in the section of “Citation Formats,” which contains templates for over 100 genealogical sources.

The first edition of Evidence Explained (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007) contains 804 pages, not including the introduction and indexes. Of these 804 pages, 26 pages are contained in the first chapter, “Fundamentals of Evidence Analysis,” and 52 pages are contained in the second chapter, “Fundamentals of Citation.” The remaining chapters are individually identified by broad resource types.

It is important to note that each chapter does indeed contain “QuickCheck Models” (citation templates) but there is no section of this book that is explicitly called “Citation Formats,” or anything of the like. It is also important to note that this book is named Evidence Explained, not Citations Explained.

When this book was first released in 2007, I lugged the 800-plus book on the train every day for a month and read it cover-to-cover, much as I did years before with Evidence! It never occurred to me at the time that other genealogists might consider this book a mere collection of citation templates. I have since become aware that this is exactly how many view the book.

To prove that it is not a mere guide to citations or a collection of templates, let’s look at a sample chapter. I chose Chapter 8, “Local & State Records: Courts & Governance,” at random.

  • The chapter runs from page 371 through page 418.
  • Pages 373-382: QuickCheck Models (10 pages).
  • Pages 383-385: Basic Issues. This section contains such important information about records analysis as the following passage: “Many of the ‘original’ court records you consult at the city and county level are record copies (see 1.27) rather than true originals. Historically, attorneys presented the court with documents critical to the case at hand—contracts, depositions, petitions, etc. Courts then maintained these loose documents in bundles, envelopes, jackets, or packets. Certain items of particular significance from a legal standpoint would be copied into record books, although the original packets would usually be preserved, at least for a certain number of years.” [8.5, page 385] Note that this is just one short example, and that it does not at all concern citation. These three pages contain only five short example citations, demonstrating other issues being discussed.
  • Pages 385-390: Citation Issues. This section discusses specific notes about citing these records. There are several examples in this section, again used to demonstrate the issues being discussed. These notes are insightful, not only for the specific examples being discussed, but for other record groups as well. Take this gem, for example: “Many counties and some cities are no longer functioning jurisdictions or else they have changed their names. Even so, the basic citation pattern remains the same. You would likely add a brief comment to your First Reference Note to explain the situation.” [8.12, page 388]
  • Pages 390-409: City & County Records. This section contains detailed descriptions and summaries of several record groups, as well as citation examples. It includes background information and basic formats for bound volumes, loose case files, and off-site archival records. The record groups discussed include bastardy cases (presentments), bonds [“Historically, bonds have been posted in a variety of matters. In addition to the better-known administration, guardian, and marriage bonds, bonds also guaranteed appearance in court, peaceful conduct toward others, payment of legal obligations, fulfillment of duty as a public officer, financial support for slaves being freed, and much more.” (8.22, page 396)], coroner’s inquests, county commissioners’ records, election certificates and returns, indigent records, insanity hearings, etc. This section provides not only an education in how to cite various city and county records, with examples that demonstrate variations, but also an education in many lesser-known and lesser-used record groups. It also contains other important tips, like, “The ‘source of the source’ cited by databases such as this one could refer to the original numbering scheme of the court that created the record or it could refer to a new number assigned by the archive that created the database.” This is an important distinction to make when analyzing records not only when citing them.
  • Pages 409-418: Colony & State Records. This section contains information about state archival inventories/finding aids, as well as general agencies and record groups: colony-wide courts, state or provincial appellate cases, governors’ papers, legislative petitions, and state pension files. Among the information that does not consist of citation templates, one will find the following passage: “When a case is appealed from a local court to a district, state, provincial, or federal court, the file generated at the local level is transmitted to the higher court, where it is assigned a new docket number or case number. The case name may also be reversed. For example, a case might originate locally as John Brown v. Sam Smith. If the case was decided in favor of Brown, then Smith appealed, the name of the new case before the appellate court would be Sam Smith v. John Brown. Your citation to the appellate case should carry the label and the case number used in the appellate court, not the label and number of the original case at the local level.” (8.39, pages 413-414)

While the 45 pages in this chapter do contain quite a few citation examples, they include only 10 pages of citation templates. Taken individually, there are 223 citation examples in this chapter. However, this quantity counts each individual citation separately, where the same record may be provided in source list entry, first reference note, and short reference note examples, and counted as three separate citations. The actual number of individual record examples cited within the chapter is less than 100.

The citation examples demonstrate variations in how any individual source might have to be cited. But neither the examples nor the templates will cover every single source that one will encounter. There will be major variations even within one record group, depending on whether you are accessing the record at the courthouse or an archives, a microfilmed or digital image copy, an original file or a record copy; depending on how the archives has organized their record groups; depending on whether the record refers to an earlier case or a separate file; and many other factors. While Evidence Explained does indeed address all of these factors, they are not always noted within the section devoted to the record group that you are looking for specifically.

The bulk of Evidence Explained, in fact, does not consist solely of a discussion of citation issues, as the above brief exploration shows. It certainly contains far more than simply citation templates. Those who have not read anything more than the first two chapters, and the citation models and examples, are missing out on the true value of this book.

And of course, as my previous commenter noted, and there are many out there who seem to agree with him, “I can assure you, I will never read it.” If the book were an 800-pound collection of source citation templates, I would agree with you. There would be nothing to read.

In my opinion, Evidence Explained is a much greater work concerned as much with principles of evidence analysis as with source citation. These two aspects of research cannot be separated, though this is a lesson that many still have yet to learn.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “… but we do need Evidence Explained.,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 23 Sep 2011 (https://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]


14 thoughts on “… but we do need Evidence Explained.

  1. Pingback: Why we don’t always need source citation templates … « Planting the Seeds

  2. Well, I continue to marvel at the traps I’ve set for myself. I am indeed guilty supposing that Elizabeth’s newer book is a “mere collection of citation templates.”

    Thanks for setting me straight.

    Regardless, I think templates can be quite valuable b/c many sources can be so arcane, even to members of the genealogical community.

  3. Well, I never meant to knock the book or assume it was just templates. I’m sure the work contains a great deal of time intensive study and knowledge. But to me, it mostly seems to be a compilation of common sense; an encyclopedic desk reference. Not that I’ve ever been accused of having an abundance of common sense, in fact it’s a miracle I made it past 16.

    I certainly understand, the desire of professionals to have professional looking citations. It just seems to me, that any decently organized method of citing should do that function. Any genealogist who has been at it for any decent period of time knows it pays to know the degrees of separation from a record and the original facts.

    Maybe, I’m too close to the problem to see it as a problem. I still like the idea of using software to pull the bulk of information about a source. I use a core set for large swaths of my work. It would be handy to have them readily available in a pull down list. Or even special keystrokes [ctrl-shift-U for the Urloffen FHL film 949966 item 1]. Write once, use many (with just the specifics changing). How useful!

    I guess, I’m just comfortable with making a usable citation containing the needed information, and don’t need templates or samples or deeper insight into the records. But then, I use the same sources repeatedly, and am not a professional that needs to analyze sources on a daily, weekly or monthly basis to understand the degrees of separation of a data source. Which is certainly important to know, that you are looking at a copy of a copy of a copy.

    But in the end, you are going to want to collect the same basic facts on a source, and how reliable and direct the source is. The “proper” format is probably as unimportant as the fact that what is correct in America will probably be wrong in the UK and completely abhorrent in Japan, India and Russia. It takes me forever to figure out how to read German citations. I don’t even want to think about Danish ones. I have 11 different cultures of citations to deal with, and every one is different for the same type of data. So, really why go to such trouble for such little gain? Just put in the facts, in concise understandable ways – with perhaps the very rare note about a source. After all some well known “genealogies are utter bunk, yet often cited in numerous otherwise reputable works. I give you the Babcock family of New England as proof – one of the more easily disproved trees. Then there is Resolved Waldron’s ancestry, a bit harder to disprove some bits, and some bits still in the air.

    • Jack,

      I do want to thank you for your comments, both on my earlier post and on this one. Though your comment is what initiated these two posts, they were not written specifically addressed at you. Rather, they are a response to comments I have heard from quite a few genealogists, both amateur and professional, over the past few years. It seems that many still don’t quite “get” the point of Evidence Explained.

      When writing my reports, I have begun using the Auto-Text function in MS Word, which allows me to create something close to what you describe: a drop-down menu that holds various elements that can then be brought into my document automatically, with only the details needing to be changed.


  4. Once again you have brought up a very thoughtful way to view what is sometimes a very contentious issue within the genealogy community, and I thank you for it. For a time I was one of those who attempted to quickly pick up the book, check the index for the correct section, and then find the relevant citation format needed for my current situation.
    As time went on I found myself questioning some of those decisions, feeling that I was missing the boat and at times actually frustrated when the answer wasn’t easily located.
    I made a decision about 10 days ago that Elizabeth would not have put all the time and effort into all the pages of this book without good reason, so I sat myself down and started reading from the beginning in small chunks so that the material sinks in. I am delighted with your post today since it comes as I am learning those facts for myself, and also as I prepare to spend a couple days at a county courthouse. That way I will be better prepared in my thinking about the actual records I am viewing and their purpose. Thank you

  5. Thank you for this comprehensive post. I have thumbed through both books but do not own either of them. I have only heard the Evidence book referred to as the “go to” book for the proper source citation format…a book of templates. Your post is the first time I have heard reference made that the books are guides to understanding of the evidence itself. Seems like a diservice has been done to ESM. These books deserve more than just athumbing through.

  6. Jenna, I agree, Michael here has some good insights and a great technique for getting at the substance of a subject. A worthwhile blog. The level of praise this indicates, coming from me, most won’t fathom. I only discovered this blog as a result of an email I got from an acquaintance. As time allows, I’ll be reading more of this site. It may even become the very second blog I follow. Even, though, I’m kind of an outsider and not a true believer in ESM. ;’)

  7. Oh I like this. More years ago than I care to remember, I did a maths degree, so I am sensitive to logic in arguments. I’m afraid that the typical on-line article about citations spends an age explaining how to cite a census image off Ancestry and _never_ mentions how the author knows that this John Doe (or whoever) is the John Doe in which they have an interest. It’s as if the average genealogist simply ignores the whole process of logic leading up to their conclusion. Now, I’m sure that is a gross exaggeration – but…

    Anything like this post that encourages people to think about their sources, about possible errors in them, about the logic of how to use them, is warmly welcomed.

    • That is a great point, Bruce. I agree that the “same name” phenomenon probably single-handedly contributes to more faulty conclusions than any other common fallacy. As far as I am concerned, every potentially relevant record should be first thoroughly analyzed and compared to other available records to confirm identity. This even before any other information held in the record is considered.

  8. @Bruce and Michael, in regards to conclusions and proofs. They are not really related to sources and citations, per say. However, they are important. It can be difficult to know, when you have it right. Sometimes you have five or six people with the same name in a small town all born in the right timeframe. Occasionally two or more of them will live to adulthood, marry and have children.

    I have many occurrences, and the worst part is, most of the time they are related to each other. I have made mistakes, and had to go back and change things. Plus DNA isn’t going to be necessarily conclusive either. Worse still, I have a situation, where Johannes Frohbesen immigrated to America, a brother to my gr-gr-grandfather.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know which Johannes it is yet. You see one was born in 1832 and the other in 1835. One is the adopted godchild of my gr-gr-gr-grandmother, raised as a brother. To further complicate things the Johannes who immigrated has birthdates reported all over the landscape of that range in sources. I’m sure the adopted Johannes is related by blood somehow, but the clergy did too good at job blacking out the original parents surname. In the meantime, Johannes in America has a family, so I have them both linked to the family, until I can prove who’s who. It’s a real mess, but it’s a mess with context and an explanation of the facts. Facts which as notes will someday be part of the proof. Or left to another generation to solve. If I can’t. Adding to the mystery is the other sibling of the adopted Johannes, Frederick, who immigrated with the Johannes and Georg, who disappeared immediately after leaving Baden. But Georg’s son John named one of his sons Frederick! A name not used in the immediate family prior to Frederick’s adoption! So much to do. It’s never going to be done, it’s just too big (2^19-1 ancestors + families). What was I thinking?

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  10. Pingback: EvidenceExplained.com website launches « Planting the Seeds

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