Do you understand source citations?

Carol Saller is the chief editor of the Chicago Manual of Style. In a recent post on the Lingua Franca blog, she described a conversation with a group of university librarians:

The group unanimously perceived a lack of skills among its clientele: Students are routinely flummoxed as to how to search for or evaluate the sources they need in their work. … The extent to which college students are unprepared to conduct research may be surprising to those who assume that young adults are automatically proficient at any computer-related task. “Many students don’t actually know how to interpret the citations that they find in print or online, and as a result, they don’t understand what to search for,” says Georgiana McReynolds, management and social-sciences librarian at MIT. “They search for book chapters in Google because they don’t recognize a book citation compared to an article citation. Or they don’t know which is the title of the article as opposed to the title of the journal. Or they can’t decipher all the numbers that define the volume, issue,  and date.”[1]

This is precisely the reason that I have espoused the use of a consistent source citation format in my series of blog posts on “Source Citations–Why Form Matters.”

Without a consistent source citation format, how can a reader–even if that reader is only your future self–be expected to make sense of your citations? How will you be able to determine which is the title of a journal article, and which is the chapter of a book? Do you know how to read a source citation, or are you like these poor young college students, who never learned how to interpret a citation, and find themselves in trouble when they are required to find a source?

The worst part is that the citations for published material that cause such trouble for university students are relatively simple compared to some of the original unpublished sources commonly used by genealogists. When you read a citation in a genealogy journal, can you determine which element is which ?

Take the following citation, for example. I examined this record as part of a recent client research project:

N. Wilson to Col. Andrew Hynes, letter, dated 9 August 1825; Series I., Correspondence and Other Papers, 1797–1938, Box 2: 1823–1827; Edward J. Gay and Family Papers, Mss. 1295; Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

If you came across this reference in a genealogical society journal, and this related to your family, would you know how to find the record? Any researcher that had taken the time to learn the basics of the accepted source citation format would have no problem. They would understand, for example, that the standard citation format for state and federal archives begins with the specific item in a collection and proceeds from the most specific element to the most general element, as opposed to local records that begin with the most general element and proceed to the most specific.[2] They would know that commas separate elements on the same level of organization, while semicolons separate elements on different levels.[3]

Understanding the basic rules of this citation format allows you to easily discern that the letter cited above is at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The University has a group of manuscript collections called “Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections,” of which the “Edward J. Gay and Family Papers,” manuscript collection no. 1295, is one. Within this manuscript collection, the letter can be found in Box 2 of Series I.

All of the information necessary to locate this record can be clearly conveyed through the use of a consistent citation format. Any reader who understands the format can find this letter. Readers who do not understand the format–like those students mentioned by Saller in her blog post–will be confused.

Can those genealogists who say that a consistent format is unnecessary provide an example that supports this position? Can you come up with a way to cite an original manuscript that is as easily understood, either by another reader or even by yourself 15 or 20 years later, when you have no remaining memory of where you found the information?


[1] Carol Saller, “Getting the Most out of Academic Libraries—and Librarians,” in Lingua Franca blog, posted 18 October 2011 ( : accessed 29 October 2011).

[2] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained, 1st ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007), 434.

[3] Mills, Evidence Explained, 77.

18 thoughts on “Do you understand source citations?

  1. Michael, what is your understanding of the fact that on pages 430-432 of _Evidence Explained_), Elizabeth cites state-level records from largest element to smallest, instead of smallest to largest as she recommends on page 434 (your citation)? I will confess to sometimes citing local records from smallest element to largest (which strikes me as a venial sin at worst).

    My theory is that putting the elements of local and state level citations in different orders is more the artistic part of citation than the rule-bound part (she does say “typically” on p. 434), but maybe I only think that because it excuses my error. It does seem that those of us who rely largely on QuickCheck Models are going to become confused here.

    • I just took a look at the pages you mention, Harold. I notice these are all examples of state-level vital records. The full discussion of vital registration starts on page 454, but does not discuss why state-level vital records are cited differently from other state-level records. Perhaps if we ask kindly enough (and she isn’t too busy) Elizabeth will explain her reasoning. Until then, I will warrant a guess.

      To understand better, I went back to the original text of Evidence Explained:

      Records held at the state level are typically cited in classic format for formally archived records. Your Reference Note begins by identifying the smallest element (the item of interest) and proceeds through the various file, collection, series, and record-group designations until you reach the largest element (the repository and its location). [page 434]

      This does not really say that all state-level records are cited in that manner. It says that “[r]ecords held at the state level are typically cited in classic format for formally archived records [emphasis mine].” The next sentence then clarifies this further, referring to the various levels of archival elements: files, collections, series, record groups. The Models on pages 430-432 do not represent archived materials held at the state level. They represent state-level records still in the possession of their original creator (or its successors).

  2. Imagine yourself looking for the document, include all the elements in an order that makes them understandable, proofread twice for comprehensiveness. It’s difficult only in that it’s tedious and very detailed. I don’t make sure the cite follows rules rigidly, I just make sure the next person will find the document more easily than I did. Tight formatting adds a level of care that blows the whole entry for me.

  3. Michael,
    I can relate to the students. I graduated valedictorian from a small town high school that offered only the basics. I was never required to write a paper and cite sources. We had no community library and the school library was very basic. When I began college [1963] I knew nothing about citations. Because I was a history major, I was required to purchase Kate Terabian’s “Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Disertations.” At that time it was a very thin book, dealing mostly with published sources. When I became a genealogist [1972] I learned there was something more appropriate for that work, “Cite Your Sources.” Later I purchased “Evidence!.” As I matured as a researcher/writer I purchased “Chicago Manual of Style” and “Evidence Explained.”

    As a genealogist I specialize in Kansas research. As my family’s historian, I research the South. If I were to take up New England research, I would be just like the students in the article you referenced, ignorant of what to do or where to begin. But my knowledge of research in other areas will allow me to get a “beginner’s” start in this new [to me] field of research. We begin with what we know and work towards what we don’t know.

  4. Hi Michael, I used to think I did a good job at writing my source citations, but they were based on books and journals, and were pre-internet. I always got As on my research papers. I was taught the MLA style and continued to use that in my Professional career as a scientist. But this genealogical style of citing sources and having to choose between APA, Chicago and MLA (I am in Library School now and it is professor preference whether we use APA or Chicago style) is really bogging me down, in addition to not understand half the time what EE is even talking about when trying to explain which “elements” to place first or last!

    I have EE in my library and I’ve tried to read it, but frankly there are a lot of things I simply don’t understand, even as a library student. For example, it is still difficult for me to discern what is the “collection” and what is the “series.”

    Also, you mentioned that the researcher should know that “the standard citation format for state and federal archives begins with the specific item in a collection and proceeds from the most specific element to the most general element, as opposed to local records” – So which is the Louisiana State University? To me, that’s a University. Does that mean it’s a State ARCHIVES? I would have never guessed that. I would be spending the next 4 hours looking for an example relaying to a STATE University, not an Archives. And what are “local records” then? Does that mean you list the local repository first or the local record first? I was kind of confused by this.

    • I addressed why the Chicago citation style is preferred in an earlier post. (Check the Source Citations category. I believe it was one of the “Why Form Matters” posts.)

      In Evidence Explained, the names of various elements like “collection,” “series,” “record group,” etc., are used in a general sense. But to apply these terms appropriately it is our job as researchers to understand how various records are archived and organized in the repositories we are using. Not all repositories use the same organization scheme.

      Louisiana State University is an archive in a general sense, a repository of archived records. It is not the Louisiana State Archives. I also realize that I did not express myself as clearly as Ms. Mills did in EE. See the above response to Harold where I quoted EE directly. The key point is that the records in Louisiana State University are archived records. In other words, the records being cited were not created by the University, but were transferred there for archival storage. Understanding the archival organization system is vital to being able to accurately cite a record held by an archive.

  5. Hi Michael, thanks for the clarification. So when you say “local records,” do you mean records that were created by an organization but that then stay within that organization’s holdings? So are records created by the County’s Register of Deeds which are then still maintained within the Register of Deeds office, considered “local records?”

    • No, local records are what you probably already thought they were: records created at the local municipal or county level as opposed to state or federal. However, the way that we cite a record that remains in the possession of its original creator as opposed to a record that is transferred to an archive may (or may not) be different. This is why it is important to truly understand the record that we are using. (See my previous post “Five things you have to know about every record.”)

  6. This question is far more simple than the previous ones. I noticed that you placed your citation numbers in square brackets rather than superscripting them. Is this the standard for blog posts?

  7. Michael, Thanks for keeping this discussion alive. I insisted my college students cite MLA without fail. But, I have to say, in genealogical studies, when not clear, I include the “entire kitchen sink” for fear that I (not others) will not be able to re-locate client research documents.

  8. Hi Michael,
    I have two additional questions…
    First, does this citation for Archives apply to microfilm that is housed at the Archives as well? And if so, then I would put all of the information about the record itself first, separated by commas. Then I would put a semicolon and then start the information about the actual microfilm?

    I am looking at a land grant. So for my specific information I have Person’s name, land grant received by the State of NC, file no., and box no. For the Microfilm, I have Call No., name of organization that created the record, title of the record, and range of box numbers included in the microfilm. I’m not sure what order this all goes in. Which leads me to my second question.

    It seems as if in the example you listed above, the first part goes from specific to general with his name to date; however the second part seems to go from general to specific – “Series I., Correspondence and Other Papers, 1797–1938, Box 2: 1823–1827; Edward J. Gay and Family Papers, Mss. 1295.” How do I know what parts are general and what are specific? To me Series is more general than Edward Gay and Family Papers.

    Thank you

    • I’ll answer your second question first, as it may help clarify your first question. “Series I, Correspondence and Other Papers … Box 2 …” is the name of a series within the manuscript collection “Edward J. Gay and Family Papers…” This is why I have stated repeatedly that it is vital to understand the organization of the record group you are using.

      How do you know “what parts are general and what are specific?” This is the central issue behind the call for a consistent citation format. If researchers continue to cite willy-nilly, just making sure “all the parts are there” (as I have heard some writers argue), then there simply is no way to tell, from the citation alone, which parts are general and which are specific. On the other hand, when you look at my citation, understanding the citation format being used, then you know that the series name is more specific than the collection name.

      I hope that this might help a little. From the information you have provided about the land grant, I cannot determine how to cite the record you are looking at. However, it appears that you are attempting to cite a government record on microfilm. This would not follow the same pattern as an unpublished item held within a larger manuscript collection.

      Perhaps the following citation will help you make sense of what you are looking at. This is a citation for a microfilmed patent record book in the state of Maryland.

      Maryland Land Office, Patent Record Volume 17, pages 199-200, James More, patent for Mores Plains, 1 Aug 1673; Maryland State Archives microfilm no. SR 7358.

  9. Thank you for your insight. I was focusing on the fact that I got this record from the State Archives. But you have shown me that I need to focus on the fact that it is a Government document. It seems as if the latter trumps the former. I will look that up in EE! and go from there and use your citation as an example. Thanks again!

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