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.”
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material that cause such trouble for university students are relatively simple compared to some of the original unpublished sources commonly used by genealogists.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. They would know that commas separate elements on the same level of organization, while semicolons separate elements on different levels.
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?
 Carol Saller, “Getting the Most out of Academic Libraries—and Librarians,” in Lingua Franca blog, posted 18 October 2011 (http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca : accessed 29 October 2011).
 Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained, 1st ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007), 434.
 Mills, Evidence Explained, 77.