Friday, June 21, 2013

"Good enough" citations? We can do better.

Have you heard all the talk? Some people are afraid to write anything because they might make a mistake. So -- instead of helping them learn, the idea is that people should just . . . rite enny way she, yknow, feelzlike, cuz y'all'll B all lk aright I git it man so

No, I just made all that up. But it is essentially the argument prolific geneablogger James Tanner (Genealogy's Star) and his commenters have made about citations: don't worry about doing them right, just do them. As long as we can manage to figure out how to find your source, it's OK.

I think Mr. Tanner is about 50% right. We all hesitate to try things when we're not sure we can succeed. Encouragement is in order. As I said in my February 2013 Illinois State Genealogical Society webinar on citations, "Something is better than nothing." But better somethings are better. Education is also in order. (Hobbyists who don't want to be educated, please consult this post from last November.)

Contrary to Mr. Tanner, 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. And as Thomas W. Jones adds in his new and excellent book Mastering Genealogical Proof, they also communicate to our readers how well we have made our case, how well we understand the sources, and how solid they are.

(And before anyone starts up with horror stories about the so-called "citation police" who abuse people who misplace a semicolon: Prove it. I have never met any such person. Elizabeth and Tom are the kindest people I know, even when correcting gross errors.)

Citations are a language. We need to learn the language for all the reasons above. We can get by with a few phrases laboriously memorized and mispronounced from a tourist book, or we can immerse ourselves in the language and learn it well. Our choice will depend on our purpose: a weekend in France, or convincing colleagues and relatives who our French ancestors were.

If we speak broken French we may be able to find a bathroom, but we are not likely to persuade any French speaker that we know what we are talking about. It's the same with citations and genealogy: We may be able to understand someone who cites incompletely and carelessly, but we may not value their opinion highly. That's just the way of the world. Knowing the language makes it easier for us to talk together, and it shows that you care.

One other point: even if citations were only for finding our way back to the source, we don't always know what the future holds. What is obvious to us sitting in the library or archive may not be obvious to our grandchild 60 years from now. Today it seems hilarious overkill to identify the URL of a census on or the NARA microfilm publication it derives from. But when Ancestry gets bought or merged out of existence by some as yet unborn Chinese corporation, our descendants may appreciate any clue they can get as to where that information was found. Of course this goes double for less stable web sites.

As genealogists we have to take a wide view. I cannot assume that La Porte is only in Indiana, or only in the United States. 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. All those dedicated old folks who carefully pasted newspaper clippings into scrapbooks without labeling or dating them -- they were provincial. We may be grateful to them, but we can't afford to be like them if we want our family histories to last.

And, yes, this does have a personal dimension. I recently encountered the following informal citation:

"Bible record published 1939 by Noel C. Stevenson, Alhambra, California, vol. 1, bible #91."

I can't find it. I am asking an expert genealogy librarian for help, and I'm now asking the readers of this blog: Please embarrass me by locating it easily! If the person who wrote this "good enough" citation had taken only a little more care, there would be no problem.

Harold Henderson, "'Good enough' citations? We can do better," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 21 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Jessica's thoughts said...

Hi Harold,

Could this be the source you are looking for? I had to play around with WorldCat with some of the information listed, and it appears to be a book on microfilm:

Stevenson, Noel C. Native Sons of the Golden West. Alhambra, California, 1940.

The WorldCat entry lists that it is about bible records, but as you can see from the information above, the publication year appears to be incorrect.

These numbers may or may not be useful to you in your request of this item:

Entry: 19940929
Update: 20130328
Accession No: OCLC: 31196499

I hope this helps,

Jessica Oswalt

Geolover said...

Great sleuthing, Jessica. The Library of Congress site does not list this item.

Harold's post is pertinent and timely with respect to the present citations templates. See (for example) the exchange here:

Harold said...

Thank you, Jessica. Good job. And I think I am embarrassed because it was just a little farther down in the WorldCat results, after many wildly inappropriate hits. This seems very likely to be the desired source. Actually, as WorldCat has it the title is "Bible records" and the publisher is "Native Sons of the Golden West." I can see that I will still need some professional help, however, since this is a new animal for me: a publication listed on WorldCat, but WorldCat knows of NO LIBRARY that holds it!

Harold said...

Never mind. It's in the FHL catalog, I think, although minus the supposed publisher.

John D. Tew said...

My two cents worth on this continuing topic . . .

BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) -- citation IS very important, but when it comes right down to it, it is ACCURATE substance that matters most, not FORM. How many times have we seen completely accurate format for a citation, but with errors (typo or otherwise) as far as the substantive information is concerned? I emphasize "accurate" because most examples I see about this topic emphasizing proper citation concentrate on form and raise samples with errors in them (like the wrong publication date) or missing substantive information.

I commented on Bill West's blog "West In New England" when he raised this issue on June 17th. This is what I had to say then and now . . .

"Many years ago as a graduate student I taught a couple of courses at the college level and then later I taught legal research and writing at a paralegal school and a local community college. The college and later courses were from different disciplines so, of course, each had their own citation peculiarities. I was once told that many of the citation conventions were holdovers from days when typesetting demands, labor and costs drove spacing, abbreviation, and other citation "rules." I don't know how true this explanation is, but I dutifully taught "proper" citation form and then always told the students that the MOST important thing is really not the format because proper format can still contain errors. The most important thing is to provide enough ACCURATE information that anyone wanting to go to your source can find it quickly, easily and precisely -- so get the info right first and foremost and then worry about the format -- especially if you are trying to publish. Purists will cringe at "improper" formatting, but the true test is can one find the source with the info supplied no matter whether it meets citation code or not. ;-) " If one cannot find the cited source quickly, easily and precisely, then I submit the citation is faulty no matter whether it is in the proper form/format or not.

Harold said...

Thanks, John. We must have attended different lectures because I don't remember seeing properly formatted citations with wrong information within. I agree with your last sentence. But it seems like a false opposition to imply that we have to choose between accuracy and good formatting. Why not both?

Also, finding the original is important but is not the only purpose of citation -- at least not in genealogy where the nature of evidence is such that analysis and correlation are crucial.

Anonymous said...

It can be important to remember that many libraries are not included in World Cat (I think there is a fee involved) FHL and DAR come to mind and here in the Los Angeles area, Southern California Genealogical Society Library, which is excellent, are all not included - It pays to keep a list of specialized libraries when you want to find something.

Elyse said...

I am a firm believer in this general metaphor: We all are trying to get to the top of the mountain and there are lots of different ways to get there. The way that might work for you might not work for me, and vice versa. And honestly, that is OK. We're all in the learning pool.

My main goal for citing citations is to list as much information as humanly possible. It doesn't really bother me the exact order it is in, although putting the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) as John called it is important.

Like yes, citing the book is good. But what library did you find it in? What date did you look at it? This (and more) should be in that citation. Because I'd rather have too much information than too little.

And while I love EE and all it's glory, I also respect that some genealogists may come from other fields where using APA might be more comfortable.

Either way, unless you are trying for professional level work, are a professional, or plan on doing some publishing, you don't need perfect citations. Are they nice? Yeah. But needed? Well, no. Your great grand kids will still find that document to check your work if you leave them lots of information (ie: more than your example).

Harold said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Elyse. I do hope that all genealogists will try to do some kind of publishing, because otherwise their work (hidden away in databases) is more likely to end up in the dumpster.

Part of what makes citation language tricky is that it is an attempt to compromise between putting in everything (on one hand) and not doing more work and taking up more space than necessary (on the other). It is common practice to put more info into one's own working citations than in ones submitted for publishing. (And the secret is that editors often have their own styles which they will translate your citations into. It is a language, but even within genealogy there are several dialects.)

But as long as you're putting everything in, don't forget the main reason for citing at all: so that both you and your readers *understand* what you're citing and what its value is likely to be as evidence. (Such as, is it an index, or an actual record?)

I'm OK with knowing which library you found it in, if you want to go to that kind of trouble, but I'd much rather know (for example) that the author of a family history wrote in the preface that he just printed whatever people sent to him and didn't check anything!

Michael Hait said...


When we are fairly young, we learn to construct sentences in English. When we learn a foreign language, we learn to construct sentences in this language. If we ignore the rules of grammar and semantics, then no one can understand us.

Since you brought up APA, you might want to take a look at the APA Style Guide. See for example

APA Style only provides for in-line citations, of primarily published sources. It doesn't even allow for the use of reference notes (footnotes or endnotes). It is clearly not appropriate for citing the original records genealogists use.

Anne Young said...

Hi Harold - enjoyed your blog entry. Following up from Jessica's comment - my be worth trying the Native Sons of the Golden West museum - they may have the bible. See

Harold said...

Anne -- Thanks for the suggestion and your ongoing concern. The transcription has been located; that volume has been microfilmed, FHL 1,035,690, item 1. It would be nice to find the original Bible to better assess its likely accuracy. Evidently Stevenson copied the information out of Bibles he found in antique stores in the early 1930s. Thank you Noel!! -- Harold

Dawne Slater-Putt said...

Hi, Harold. I see you probably have located a source for your mystery "published" bible record! I also found this online about a Van Vlack bible:

"The Bible records were collected by Noel C. Stevenson, Fellow of the ‘American Society of Genealogists’ who sent them to the Portland Society [Genealogical Forum of Portland, Oregon] in 1961.

For further verification, the writer corresponded with Mr. Stevenson, living in 1950 in Santa Ana, Calif., as to the why and wherefore of his bible records, and quote his reply in part: ‘I compiled that collection of Bible records circa 1932-33. My system was to visit second hand book stores in the Los Angeles area and copy the Bible records out of the Bibles in their possession, thus preserving family genealogy for posterity before it was lost when sold to dealers or given to charitable institutions. Evidently some of the descendants of your Van Vlack family lived in the Los Angeles area. I am extremely pleased and enjoy knowing that my preservation of old Bible records has been of assistance to contemporary genealogical research.'"

See The Genealogy Center has the Portland society's publication, so you might find the bible transcribed within it. I did a PERSI search using the Porter name and found references to two Porter bibles published in the Oregon periodical, but neither was submitted by Mr. Stevenson. It's possible the bible wasn't coded under the Porter surname in PERSI, however.