Thursday, September 13, 2012

Are Citations the "Endgame" of Genealogy?

Many people think chess is boring, or too hard. Many chessplayers think endgames -- where most of the pieces have been traded off and much of the action is limited to kings and pawns -- are boring, or too hard. Yet if a chessplayer doesn't know how to play simple endgames, an astute opponent will steer for those endgames and win. I used to say that endgames were the "chess" of chess, the hard core of the hardcore.

Citations in genealogy are a bit like that. Many people think genealogy is boring (and if they knew more about it they might say it was too hard, too!). Many genealogists think citations are boring, or too hard. But genealogists who don't cite their sources probably don't understand them. And that's dangerous.

It's not dangerous because we'll forget where the source is. That does happen, but these days it's often a relatively minor problem. The danger lies in not knowing what the source is. Confusing an on-line database with an on-line image of an original, or confusing a Compiled Service Record card with a muster roll can lead to being confused or deceived. As Elizabeth Shown Mills puts it on her web site Evidence Explained, citing sources is all about "the details researchers need to capture while using a record, in order to understand (a) the nature of the source and (b) the strengths and weaknesses of the information that source provides." So the best citations are written on the scene rather than afterwards.

So are citations the hard core of the hardcore of genealogy? Maybe, although I might reserve that honor for the construction of a good proof argument. What do you think?

Harold Henderson, "Are Citations the 'Endgame' of Genealogy?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 13 September 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Above The Branches Genealogy LLC said...


In the simplest of terms we need to cite our sources for ourselves. We all tend to forget as time goes on.
We may not have to do them in the perfect way that Evidence Explained has suggested, but giving credit where credit is due is the right thing to do. Who knows you might have to go back that someday and re-investigate your work.
Always helps if you leave some bread crumbs for yourself.

Michael Hait said...

Rather than a chess analogy (since I can't play chess), I'll use a football analogy.

Research is the game. A proof argument that meets the GPS is a touchdown. Source citation is the voice of the commentators talking about what's going on. It's not just the scoreboard, it's a play-by-play.

Harold said...

LOL, Michael. My only quarrel with this analogy is that you *could* have a perfectly good football game without any commentators (sometimes I mute them), but you can't have good research without citations. So maybe the citations are the referees (and NOT the "replacements"!)

Michael Hait said...

Try listening to a football game on the radio instead of on tv. It makes all the difference in this analogy!

(This is also one of the drawbacks to moving out of state. There are no DC networks in Delaware--only Philadelphia. And Redskins fans would understand the torture of having to watch Eagles games. LOL)