Hurdling the “Brick Wall” without Landing in a Pothole (The Real Value of Source Citation):


A Conversation with Elizabeth Shown Mills


Times have changed. A generation ago, many genealogists still balked at the idea of citing sources: “That’s such a bother! If a source isn’t reliable, I just won’t use it!” “I’m not writing for publication, so I don’t need to go to all that work.” Invariably, then, someone will point out that source citation is important for another reason:  ”We owe it to others to identify our source so they can find it too.”

Today’s genealogists are more sophisticated researchers, but we still hit dead ends caused by old mindsets and habits. Genealogical software now urges users to document all findings, and most genealogists try to do just that. Still, we get stuck. We hit brick walls that stymie us, or we hurdle a brick wall (we think), only to land in a pothole and become mired again.

The root of our problems is still – often – our source citations.  Elizabeth Shown Mills, one of genealogy’s leading problem solvers, explained why when I queried her recently.

“Successful problem solving is not about finding a source. It’s about understanding our evidence.  We may have what seems to be a very good source, but it is totally inaccurate. We can spend years pursuing leads found in that source and get nowhere, because we should not have trusted it at all.”

Mills’ immensely popular Evidence series (Evidence!, Evidence Explained, QuickSheet: Citing Online Historical Resources Evidence! Style, and QuickSheet: Citing Databases and Images) was created for just this reason: to help us avoid costly and frustrating mistakes. Booksellers tout the series for citation models-over 1,100 of them in the latest volume (Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace). But Evidence Explained goes where no other citation guide has ever gone.  It teaches us how to work with evidence so we don’t get stuck.

“The real purpose of source citation,” Mills tells us, “is not so others will know where our information came from. The real purpose of citation is to keep ourselves straight. Shifting the emphasis from ‘doing others a favor’ to ‘doing what we need to solve our research problems’ makes a huge difference in whether we succeed or fail.”

As a vendor at conference booths, I often hear one question: Why do genealogists need a special citation manual? Invariably the questioner then adds, “I learned to cite sources in school using MLA Style [or Turabian, or Chicago, or APA, etc.].  Why do I need anything else?”  Or, “I mostly do my research on the Internet, and many free websites tell us how to cite Internet stuff. Why do I need a book?

According to Ms. Mills, we need “something else” for three reasons:

•1.      The standard citation guides do an excellent job of what they are designed to do, but almost entirely, they focus on published materials. Coverage of unpublished materials is generally limited to academic manuscripts (theses, dissertations, etc.) and basic items in academic archives. Genealogists, however, use thousands of record types that don’t fit the traditional mold-records in courthouses, churches, and cemetery offices; papers and artifacts in private possession; and materials with endless quirks that can’t be “standardized.”

  • 2. The classic guides were created to serve the needs of publishers and readers, not the needs of researchers. Publishers need consistency and economy. (The printed page is expensive real estate.) Therefore, publishers strip citations down to the barest essentials needed for readers to find the source.

Researchers have a different need. When we use a source, we have to ask: What details must we capture about this source, so we can evaluate the reliability of its information? We also realize that whatever decision we make about reliability right now is subject to revision. As research continues, we’re likely to find all sorts of other evidence contradicting this source. We are then forced to make new judgments as to where the weight of the evidence lies.

That is why, while we are eyeballing a source, it is critical to capture every essential detail about the nature of that source. That is why, while our source is at hand, we need to apply all the classic rules of textual analysis that help determine reliability. That is why we have to record all those details in our “working note,” so that months or years down the road we will have whatever information we need to accurately deal with conflicts between records.

            After all, we’re not doing this research for publishers or readers. We’re doing it for ourselves.

  • 3. Standard website citations are also based on the old mindset that a citation’s purpose is “to tell the reader where to go to find this again.” As researchers, however, we know that all websites are not created equal. We find huge disparities in the reliability of different materials at the same website. Most citation guides, online and in print, advise us to record the name of the website, its URL, and the date of access. Good genealogists, however, know that image copies of records are far more reliable than abstracts or databases and that our citation of a website needs to carefully identity exactly what we used, where the provider got its information, and even more.

Mills’ Evidence Explained guides researchers through the maze of historical materials available in the modern world. It lays out, in simple terms, all the principles of evidence analysis so that we can accurately evaluate what we find. Its citation models heavily emphasize original sources of almost every type. Whether we use registers or files on site, on film, on CD-ROM, or online, Evidence Explained covers all the quirks we need to know about that record type and that media type, so that we can capture all the essential information and make reliable judgments about the reliability of our evidence.

One final question is asked frequently at conferences. If I have Evidence! do I need Evidence Explained (or vice versa)? Ms. Mills suggests that a combination of either title plus the two Quicksheets is appropriate. I find that I prefer to travel with Evidence! as it is smaller and weighs less (think airplane luggage restrictions and costs!) and answers the majority of my needs while on a research trip. But, I also have Evidence Explained within easy reach of my desk and computer at home so that I can be even more detailed while writing research reports, analyzing data and finalizing my source documentation. I have found this series to be essential in my work and I think you will as well.




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