Dealing with citations

The toughest technical challenge I have found with genealogy is citations.  Creating good citations is not easy and it slows down the rest of your work. Yes they are vital to doing good genealogy.  So how do you come to grips with citing your sources?

I got to thinking about all this recently when I decided to follow brickwall advice I had heard several times from Dr. Tom Jones: write a report on the problem and put in what you know.  The process of organizing your thoughts can lead to new insights and ideas on getting past the brick wall.  If I’m going to do that, though, I will want to do things properly and cite my sources.  The problem is that the citations I have for this brick wall come from several years of research and most of them were done in Family Tree Maker.  I now use RootsMagic, which has templates to help one make better citations.  Because of all this I decided to go through all of the citations for my brick wall person and his family and bring them up to Evidence Explained (EE) standards.  That way when I’m writing my report I won’t be bogged down fixing citations.  This has been a major project, but worth it.

While fixing up my citations, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the process.  Since taking the Boston University course last year, where writing citations was a big part of the class, I have tried to master them.  Unfortunately doing so almost took all of the joy out of genealogy.  Nothing is worse than finding some great information and then having to spend time cracking open Evidence Explained to figure out how to do the citation.  This can be especially difficult because best practice is to do it before you even review and analyze the source.  The reason, of course, is that if you don’t do it then you may forget the details later on.

Now, in theory, one is supposed to be able to learn the principles of citation so that they don’t need to go copy an example from EE.  In fact, aping the examples in EE is considered to be very lame genealogy, as you are supposed to understand the principles and make your own citations.  EE is good about explaining the ideas behind each part of the citation and why they are there.  Unfortunately it suffers some at teaching you how to build up a citation from scratch.

Dr. Tom Jones helps out here.  This was covered in the BU class and in a lecture I heard at the NGS national conference a few weeks ago.  The idea is to lay out your citation in the form Who, What, When, Where, and Where.  He goes into a lot more detail, but this gives a framework for how to lay out your citations even if you have no idea what the formal solution would be.  I really wish this were published somewhere rather than being one of his standard talks, though, as I have nowhere to point to for more information.

BTW, this more general approach was taught in the BU course but our citations were heavily scrutinized and graded so I didn’t have the luxury of doing citations this way, instead I worked out of EE because I didn’t want to make mistakes.  The bad part was I didn’t really get a chance to practice the method during the class, and I got used to doing the EE lookups.  This isn’t the fault of the course, as it should be teaching correct citations, but I’m not sure how to get around that problem.  Now that I’m a better-trained amateur, though, I can relax and try things like the Who, What, When, Where, and Where method and not worry so much about being scrutinized.  For this reason, Tom Jones talk at the NGS conference was a great refresher.

So what have I come up with for a solution?  The answer comes in several parts:

  1. While working at the library or other place where I’m taking notes into Evernote rather than entering data into RootsMagic, I go by the Who, What, When, Where and Where method.  I may not get each part of punctuation right, but I know enough to get the required information in there.  I’ve already used this method some since the NGS conference and found it pretty relaxing to use.
  2. When entering information into RootsMagic I use its citation template capabilities for the common cases.  This will be frowned on by some, but spending my time typing out the citation for each record from a census page or Google Books, for example, is not  good use of my time.  RootsMagic has a nice template structure that creates all three types of citations: full, short, and source list.  Now, this does not mean that you can do citations without understanding them, as many of the templates have some poorly-defined fields.  In the common cases I am starting to make my own templates.  For example, I save a lot of census information from  I got tired of typing “” and “” into the template for each record, and realized I could hard-code most of the citation and just ask for fields like name, dwelling, family, etc.  This is a huge time-saver.  I’ll write about this more later on.
  3. In the more difficult cases, I will dig out Evidence Explained.  When I do, though, I actually do read the sections on principles so I can see why the examples were done the way they were or to look for ideas on how to figure it out on my own.

I’ll see how this all works out.  Having learned how to make my own templates in RootsMagic has cut out a lot of the tedium of making citations, and the Who, What, When, Where, and Where method gives me a way to do passable citations when away from the templates.

This entry was posted in Evernote, Evidence, Genealogy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dealing with citations

  1. Sheryl says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. It deals with some really important issues. On my blog I struggle with whether getting the citations just right can make it more difficult for readers to follow the story. Like you, I’ve landed on providing the basic information–so someone can find the resource if they want to–but don’t worry about formatting and all of the details (city of publisher, etc.)

  2. Thanks. I sort of hit both extremes in the blog. If I’m just doing commentary, which is most of the time, I just do a link. If I’m writing about genealogical findings (see, though, I go ahead and do the full citation. By that time the full citation is what I have in RootsMagic, so I just copy and past it.

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