Monday, June 24, 2013

Beginners, Professionals, Sources, Citations, EE, and More

There have been several blog posts recently about source citations, citation styles, and the perceived problem that beginners in genealogy research just cannot do something so complicated, so it drives beginners away from genealogy and family history.

1)  James Tanner, in Citations vs. Sources (posted 2 June 2013) on the Genealogy's Star blog, said:

"People are intimidated by the forms asking for details about the source and they have no idea what the form is asking for and therefore elect either to forego adding the source or to leave off the citation."


"I must admit that some of the systems for citations used by genealogy database programs are intimidating in their complexity."


"My point is that citation formats are nice but are really intimidating to most researchers. Let's try to be a little more inclusive and less strict. As long as we can find what they are talking about, it should work."

There were several comments by readers who agreed with James, and some who disagreed.  Read the whole blog post for completeness and  context.

2)  Bill West, in "Confessions of a Citation Slacker" (posted 17 June 2013) on the West in New England blog, confessed:

"I have my copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence! nearby and occasionally I use it, but for the most part I am a slacker and let my genealogy programs RootsMagic 6 and Ancestry do the work for me."

There were several very helpful comments here, and the whole post should be read for completeness and context.

3)  Harold Henderson, in "'Good Enough' Citations? We Can do Better" (posted 21 June 2013) on the Midwestern Microhistory blog, said:

"...citations have more than one purpose. As Elizabeth Mills has said repeatedly in Evidence Explained and elsewhere, they are not just about finding the source again, they are also about evaluating the source's quality and quirks."


"One goal of standard citations is that they will be understandable to anyone coming from a different time or place. That's why we put in a lot of context that we personally may know by heart."

There were several useful comments, and, again, please read the whole post for completeness and context.

4)  Here are my views on the issue, taking leads from these posts and comments:

*  The most important factor here is that every genealogist and family historian should cite his/her  sources - somehow.  It should be emphasized in all educational classes for beginning, intermediate and advanced researchers, noting that "Genealogy without documentation is mythology" and "You'll want to go back and cite them later, so cite it now."

*  Equally important is the accuracy of the source citation.  At a minimum, an author, title, website name, URL, page number, microfilm number (when available and appropriate) should be provided.

*  Researchers should cite the source that they used to obtain information, not the source of the information cited by the available, and earlier, source. The cited source in an earlier work serves as a "finding aid" for researchers, and is more authoritative than the available source citing the earlier source.  That earlier work source should be found and used if possible.

*  Source citation format should be the choice of the researcher.  The professional genealogy community has pretty much adopted Evidence! Explained formats in order to provide the location of the source and citation, but also enable the quality of the source, and any quirks of the material or source, to be evaluated by the citer and the reader.  

*  Several software programs have incorporated source citation templates into their genealogy management programs, and create source citations similar to Evidence! Explained.  The programs do not follow all of the source citation guidelines provided in Evidence! Explained, but they serve a purpose and can be edited when included in a text format.

*   Evidence! Explained came about because genealogical research consults many different types of resource like artifacts, loose papers, manuscripts, books, compilations, indexes, websites, record collections, family trees, images, email, conversations, audio recordings, video recordings, lectures, presentations, and more.  The other standard citation models were not inclusive enough to cover all of our genealogical resources.

*  Professional researchers who do client research, write and/or edit books and journal articles need to adhere to genealogy industry standards and publication guidelines.

*  Many of the online record collection providers (e.g.,,, Fold3, WorldVitalRecords, FindMyPast, etc.) provide source citations of their own creation based on some standard.  These can be used to provide a source for Events if a researcher just can't take the time to learn how to create standard source citations of any format.

*  None of us are perfect.  I was a source citation slacker for a long time, and have been trying very hard to do better and be a good example to my readers.  It is not easy, but I'm trying.  I still find that many of my free-form source citations don't meet all of the Evidence! Explained examples.

*  There are a number of published source citation models that can be used by researchers to model their commonly used source citations when they input their data and source citations in their programs.  That is worth another blog post and I will do it soon.  If readers have suggestions, I will be happy to include them into that blog posts.

Thank you to James, Bill and Harold for putting their thoughts out for the genealogy world to read and comment on.  

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Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


Saskey said...

Well, I checked out of the library Elizabeth Shown Mills' book and while I cannot claim to have scrutinized carefully all 850 or so pages (!) it certainly did intimidate me. I am trying hard to add 'proper' citations but have yet to find the 'correct' way, if there is one, to do simple source citations in FTM for just BMD and (Canadian and UK) census sources!


Diane B said...

Randy this is a helpful post. One other suggestion would be Thomas Jones' new book Mastering Genealogical Proof (as you have mentioned before) which guides readers gently through the reasons for citations and their formatting, in a workbook style that will not intimidate people. I already remember and use his "five questions" that citations answer, after reading chapter 4.

Anonymous said...

Randy, I believe Harold Henderson has a good counterexample to James Tanner's suggestion. I remember attempting to find a source which was specified using only a library call number, no library specified but probably the FHC, and the FHC had redone their entire cataloging system some years earlier. We have got to do better than that and better than Harold's example, even if we don't always use the exact preferred format. David

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

As Diane mentioned above, I'm trying to use my receipt of Thomas Jones' new book Mastering Genealogical Proof as an excuse to do a better job all around on my research and my, perhaps one day, I may actually publish some of my results, again. Thanks for a great post. Look forward to the follow-up one. ;-)