The Real Value of Source Citation: A Conversation with Elizabeth Shown Mills Revisited

By Carolyn L Barkley

This article first appeared in August 2009. Since then, the second edition of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace has been released by Genealogical Publishing Company (2009). Awareness of our need to analyze sources carefully and to cite them thoroughly has increased during the two years since the first edition. Because of the central role source documentation plays in our research, I thought it worthwhile to share with you an updated version of the original article.

Times have changed. A generation ago, many genealogists continued to balk 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” were statements repeatedly made by researchers. Invariably, however, someone would counter with the statement that source citation was important for another reason:  “We owe it to others to identify our source so they can find it too.”

Today’s genealogists are sophisticated researchers evidenced by the great lengths that current genealogical software products go to in order to enable users to document all findings.

While most of us try to do just that, we still reach brick walls that stymie us, or we hurdle a brick wall only to land in a pothole and become mired again.  The root of many of our genealogical difficulties is often found in our source citations.  Elizabeth Shown Mills, one of genealogy’s leading problem solvers, explained when queried on the topic.

“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.” “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.” Her statement injects a new element into source citation for many researchers. Documentation no longer simply provides an avenue by which another researcher can duplicate our search; it now includes the element of analysis of the source and the evidence which we have located. This addition is crucial to our work as researchers.

Ms. Mills created her immensely popular Evidence series (Evidence!,  Evidence Explained, QuickSheet: Citing Online Historical Resources Evidence! Style,  and QuickSheet: Citing Ancestry.com Databases and Images) to help us avoid costly and frustrating mistakes. Booksellers tout the series for its citation models—over 1,100 of them in the latest edition of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Library Journal called it, “an essential reference work, highly recommended for all libraries.” Evidence Explained goes where no other citation guide has ever gone:  it teaches us how to work with evidence.

At genealogy conferences, I frequently hear the question: Why do genealogists need a special citation manual? Invariably the questioner then adds, “I learned to cite sources in school using Modern Language Association (MLA) style [or Turabian, or Chicago Manual of Style, or the American Psychological Association style, 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 our research continues, we’re likely to find new evidence that may contradict an older 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.

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

  1. 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 the information, and even more.

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

The second edition of Evidence Explained refines information contained in the first edition. While the new edition does not specify the extent of the revisions, I did some spot checking to locate updated material. In particular, I noticed updated quickcheck models for many of the online citation examples included in chapter fourteen. As these formats are constantly evolving, such revisions will prove useful in your research.

Finally, many individuals attending conferences frequently ask, “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. Personally, I find that I prefer to travel with Evidence! and the two Quicksheets as they weigh less and take up less space in my suitcase (airplane luggage restrictions and costs are a real consideration) and can answer the majority of my citation needs while on a research trip. At the same time, I also have Evidence Explained within easy reach of my desktop computer at home so that I can be even more detailed when analyzing data, finalizing my source documentation, and writing research reports. My copy is marked by many Post-It Note™ flags so that I can easily refer to frequently-used quickcheck models. This series is a resource that has become essential to my genealogical research and it will be to yours as well.

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