Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Citations – The Historian’s Perspective


Citations aka Footnotes

Recent postings on the subject of citations (here, here and here) reminded me that at the APG in Knoxville, I had encountered, if not members of the “cult of citations,” then people who believed  Evidence Explained was something akin to a sacred text.
To paraphrase the encounter.  Commenter one:  “You must use Evidence Explained to cite your sources.”  Me: “What on earth for? I wrote an entire PhD dissertation without Evidence Explained.” Commenter two: “Because genealogists use sources that historians don’t.”  Me (in my head): “What in the world do you people think historians do?”
I have since become aware that arguing about citations seems to be something of an amateur sport in genealogical circles. In academic history debating interpretations of the past can become a blood sport, but I have never heard anyone fuss about where the commas go.
Historians live and breathe footnotes. We too want to cite our sources accurately.  We also know that footnotes are one of the best way to find new sources, whether primary or secondary. We like to check up on how other scholars use sources. Footnotes are also a receptacle for all sorts of extraneous information that while interesting didn’t quite fit in the text of the book or article.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like doing citations any more than the next person. They are tedious and boring (but less so than in past; more on that anon), but necessary. In my personal notes and drafts, I created my own idiosyncratic system and I would imagine most of my colleagues have done the same. When it comes time to submit our work for examination or publication, we simply identify the format required and get on with it.
But why do historians just do them?
In part, I believe it’s because we see the actual citation as part of a larger footnoting process as described above.  It is the information in the citation that is important, not the order in which it is presented. Only when too many works are cited incorrectly or cite the wrong page number or archive, will I start to question the quality of the research and analysis itself.  One incorrect citation out of 400 may irritate me (if I even notice) but won’t affect my opinion of the work as a whole.
Academics also seem more aware that there are MANY different citation formats. While we are not unconcerned with where the commas go, we know that if you use one citation format for one journal, it could be different for the next one.  So we are concerned with adhering to the format required by an examination committee or publisher. 
The main citation formats for humanities disciplines are the Chicago Style, Turabian, or MLA.  Many schools in the UK request the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) format. Professional journals often have their own preferred format. The main difference, as far as citation formats, is  whether it is (parenthetical), like the MLA or footnotes/endnotes1 like Chicago, Turabian or MHRA.  After this significant distinction the only differences are really in what order the information goes and where to place what punctuation.
Keeping track of sources a well as creating the footnotes and the bibliography can be problematic, even for academics, especially beginning ones who are just learning the sources commonly used in their field. 
Luckily, I went to graduate school when this process was becoming, well, almost easy.  Why? Because of software. Reference. Manager. Software. It is like manna from heaven. I purchased Endnote 5 while doing my PhD (they are now up to version X4), and it was the best $100 I spent. Many of my friends did footnotes the old fashioned way and seemed much more stressed over this aspect of their work than I did. Citation software is a combination of a relational database and formatting software. You input the source data and it will format it into footnotes for almost any type of document you can think of. If you need to change your citation style, you click a button and it will do all the work.
Another excellent feature is that Endnote can connect to most library systems.  Why is this good? Use the search feature to find your book and then Endnote will download the entry from the library into your database. This alleviates the burden of data entry, at least for books; you will still have to enter manuscript data by hand.
Endnote can be integrated with MS Word to create your footnotes and bibliography. However, it cannot, to the best of my knowledge, be integrated with any of the genealogy software out there. I would imagine that with some clever cutting and pasting, you could format the citation in Word and then copy it into your genealogy program. I’m not sure if these programs could be better integrated; I suppose it could be a topic of conversation with developers at next year’s RootsTech.
The makers of Endnote have been constantly improving and adding features to the program and it may have more bells and whistles than a genealogist may want. But, fear not, there are other programs, many of which are free.  I have only used Endnote, so I cannot comment on any other program. The footnoteMaven has a brief post about Noodlebib here. Comparisons of some of the more widely used programs can be found here and here.
Zotero - this one is from the Center for New Media & History at George Mason University.
Another good source for all things writing is the Online Writing Lab at Purdue. Visit their Chicago Style page.
Citing your sources is critical, if only to remind yourself where you found something. The format is probably immaterial if no one but you will see it.  If you are going to share your data with others who may not be familiar with the books, documents and archives used for the type of family research you do, you probably ought to use one of the standard citation formats. But it doesn't really matter which one, just pick one and be consistent.
Happy Citation-ing!

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