Citations – Madness or Sanity?

An Antebellum era (pre-civil war) family Bible...

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Working with genealogical materials in a responsible way calls for citing them in a responsible way. Some folks cringe at the mere thought of citations while others obsess over them. Which way is better? Which way is worse?

The middle way, or the way I’ve chosen to do citations is to use the KISS principle. Keep It Simple, Simon. (Simon also happens to be the given name of the patriarch of one of my most often researched lines.)

Years ago when I started out, there were several different methods I knew of for citing sources, Chicago, Lackey, MLA, etc. Then comes E. S. Mills with Evidence Explained, in 1997. This is the simplest method, combining the other styles I just listed, with the more specialized source styles preferred for genealogy materials. Then, a few years later, comes the big Evidence Explained book. Whoa! I had already set up more than 1,000 sources in the earlier style and wasn’t keen on re-doing them all to the new style. Am I wrong to not “fix” them? No, not really.

The 1997 EE style is sufficient for the majority of materials and can be adapted to special cases based on styles for similar materials. Works for me. My cites are better than they were, and are easily adapted to other styles, such as a society’s “house” style, or moving to a different piece of software.

I keep the big EE book handy to check my existing source citation templates and use those styles for new, and different, materials not covered in the 1997 EE book. There really isn’t much difference, so they all meld together in a readable and usable format. It also keeps me from obsessing over fixing all thousand-plus sources, and it’s hardly madness to do it this way.

As an aside, you might ask: “Why do you have so many sources?” I’m not a lumper like some folks on The Master Genealogist mailing list call themselves. Nor am I a splitter. I am a realist. I keep each source separated as much as possible so that if the templates I use get separated from the source data for some reason, all is not lost. Here’s the way I see it:

Simple fact: if all the source data is in one place, the source entry can’t fall apart when I shift from one application to another. Say I’m using a census entry. What happens if the word “census” only appears in the template and not in the source data? The rest of the entry is ambiguous so If I see the data without the template, I’m left asking “1870 what?”

An analogy is the recommended practice of writing your source citation on the front of a photocopy. If the source entry is written on the back, it can get lost when someone else makes a copy of it, leaving them with just the data on the front.

Simple fact: if all the data appears in a citation, like it should, then I can just excise the bits I don’t need for the particular house style I’m using. Magazine cite styles are shorter than professional report cite styles. Many journals are focused on one place or region and the readers can very easily fill in the missing data from the context for themselves.

The flow of data, from complete entry to short-form citation in a report, is consistent. There is nothing unnecessary added and there is nothing unnecessary removed. I can also focus more on what I’m doing at the moment and not flipping around.

It’s easy to handle citations in this way. I’d rather not spend time hunting down a needed piece of data in one application when I’m trying to write a report in another application.

Oh, and an admission: some of my source entries, not very many, though, could be tighter, but since I don’t need them very often, I also follow the YAGNI principle: “You ain’t gonna need it.” So I haven’t fixed them. If it’s not broken ….


© 2011 N. P. Maling – Sea Genes Family History & Genealogy Research