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Evidence Explained: An Interview with Elizabeth Shown Mills

Dipping into the Genealogy Pointers archives, we unearthed a fascinating interview with Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of “EVIDENCE EXPLAINED: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace.”

As one of the most respected and influential persons in American genealogy, Published widely in academic and popular presses, she was editor of the “National Genealogical Society Quarterly” (NGSQ) for 16 years.

Mrs. Mills has also taught for 13 years at a National Archives-based institute on archival records and, for 20 years, headed the program in advanced research methodology at Samford University in Alabama.

Mrs. Mills knows records, loves records, and regularly shares her expertise in them with audiences across three continents.

“EVIDENCE EXPLAINED” is Elizabeth Mills’ third major publication pertaining to source citation. Her earlier works include: “EVIDENCE! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian” (1997) and “QUICKSHEET: Citing Online Historical Resources “Evidence!” Style” (2005). The groundbreaking “EVIDENCE EXPLAINED” analyses citation principals and includes more than 1,000 citation models for virtually every source type. In the process, it covers all contemporary and electronic history sources–including digital, audio, and video sources–most of which are still not discussed in traditional style manuals.

“Genealogy Pointers” spoke with Mrs. Mills about the making “EVIDENCE EXPLAINED” and how researchers can benefit from it. Here are the exchanges from that conversation:

GENEALOGY POINTERS (GP): Why did you write this book?

ELIZABETH SHOWN MILLS (ESM): Researchers need help and want help, but what they need today is not available elsewhere. Those who study history now probe far beyond the materials covered by standard citation guides–combing long-ignored original, grassroots-level records for fresh insight into our world. Thanks to modern technology, billions of these original records are now easily accessible through many different media. However, today’s researchers also know two things: First, all these records are not created equal. Second, the real reason to carefully identify sources for each piece of information is to ensure that we use the best sources possible. Otherwise, we just can’t reach reliable conclusions. Analyzing evidence is no easy task, considering the volume of information available, the diversity of the records, all the quirks within each type of document, and all the media formats.

Since the 1997 publication of the original “briefcase edition” of “EVIDENCE!” (which compactly covers 100 of the most common types of history sources), researchers have deluged me with questions about thousands of other materials. I definitely understand their angst, after three decades of my own research in the archives of most western nations, as well as writing for journals and presses in several academic fields and 16 years of editing a major scholarly journal. The new “EVIDENCE EXPLAINED” draws on that experience–but it’s also rooted in four file drawers of inquiries and debates generated by the users of that first edition.

GP: How long did you work on this new book?

ESM: The Roman sage, Horace, once counseled “literary compositions should be kept from the public eye for at least for nine years.” I take that advice to heart with all my books. Books are like children; they need years of nurturing to develop true character and usefulness.

GP: How does “EVIDENCE EXPLAINED” compare to older works on citing sources like the “Chicago Manual of Style” or the Modern Language Association’s “Handbook?”

ESM: Both Chicago and the MLA Handbook are splendid guides to style, offering extensive coverage of punctuation, grammar, and composition. Historical sources are not their focus, however; and neither treats evidence analysis. Their citation chapters (two chapters out of 18 in Chicago; one out of seven in MLA) emphasize published materials–not the original records that are the backbone of historical research. For example:

-       Chicago and MLA: Only 2%-5% of the citation examples treat unpublished materials–mostly academic papers and manuscripts in academic archives. MLA offers examples for only the latter, but no other historical records, while Chicago adds examples for a government patent, a private contract, and one type of will.

-       EVIDENCE EXPLAINED: 64% of the ca. 1,200 citation models treat original historical records from 12 western nations–artifacts of all types, business files and registers, cemetery records (from office files to tombstones, cenotaphs, and yahrzeit plaques), censuses of myriad types, church records (administrative and sacramental), governmental records (files and registers at local, state, and national levels), historical documents in private possession, land records and tax rolls, military and pension files, and much, much more.

-       All three publications offer citation models for most of the latest electronic resources. “EVIDENCE EXPLAINED,” however, presents each of these media formats in the context of historical resources–and does so in far greater depth. Of special value is the extent to which it helps researchers understand the evidentiary differences between image copies and the databases, transcripts, abstracts, and other derivatives that proliferate in all types of media.

GP: Is there a specific audience for the book? Professional writers and researchers? Teachers, college students?

ESM: “EVIDENCE EXPLAINED” is a go-to guide for everyone who works with historical resources–attorneys, cultural demographers, historians, genealogists, geneticists, geographers, journalists, and colleagues in other related fields. Whether we are scholars, students, or curious sleuths, we all face the same questions:

-       How do we evaluate a record’s credibility–especially when its information conflicts with assertions made in other sources?

-       What details must we capture for each type of source in order to understand it and to properly interpret its evidence?

-       How do we identify each source–not just so it can be found again, but so we and others can judge its reliability?

GP: How should fledgling researchers approach the book?

ESM: We all know the riddle: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Each of the 15 chapters in “EVIDENCE EXPLAINED” is organized into digestible bites. The first two chapters present the basics of evidence analysis, citation, and style matters that relate to the use of historical sources. Fledgling researchers should read those chapters first. Experienced researchers also will want to review them as a refresher course. Past that point, most researchers will use the book as a reference tool, looking up specific types of records or specific issues as questions arise in their research.

GP: If you were teaching a course in how to conduct historical or genealogical research, how would you use “EVIDENCE EXPLAINED?”

ESM: The first two chapters are fundamental for all research-oriented courses that use history sources. All researchers, regardless of their purpose, must understand the principles of evidence analysis, which the first chapter summarizes in 26 pages. All researchers need to understand the fundamentals of citing all types of history sources, which the second chapter explores in 52 pages.

The 13 chapters that follow would then guide my students through the process of working with every type of record we might cover in the course.

GP: Your earlier publications, “EVIDENCE!” and the “QUICKSHEET,” describe the correct form for citing both traditional sources and online sources. Why another book? Why such a large book?

ESM: In everything we do, we need a choice of tools. Carpenters have tack hammers, claw hammers, and sledge hammers. Surgeons have chisels, files, rasps, and knives. Each of these tools is needed in different situations. Researchers also have different needs under different circumstances.

Photo Credit: CU Heritage Center, Life of the Library

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