Monday, May 21, 2007

CMOS deletion of posting date for online cites

In answer to “Anonymous,” [
Citing a website: Is the date necessary?] four considerations are at play here:

The budget-driven trends of university presses
Chicago Manual of Style is published by a university press. It is a style guide for other published works in academia. As such, it follows the modern trend of university presses toward minimalistic citations in published material---the same trend that prompts most university presses to eliminate citations in sections of books that deal with genealogical matters. In seeking to reduce costs, publishers often limit citations to just matters they consider important and strip citations to the absolute minimum needed for readers to relocate a record. With university presses and academic journals, the unspoken assumption is that authors who have years of academic training and the appropriate degrees in their disciplines have made judgments other academics can trust. That assumption is supported by the fact that manuscripts at academic presses and journals undergo extensive peer review prior to their acceptance for publication. These criteria and assumptions do not apply to most genealogical research.

The needs of publishers vs. researchers
The needs of researchers go beyond those of publishers. As researchers, the citations in our working files typically include observations about quality, as well as tracking data, that a university press or an academic journal would likely delete. The research process is one in which we gather all facts with any scintilla of relevance to the project. In our analyses and the eventual publishing process we winnow those facts down to the essentials needed to make a particular point. If, in the research stage, we gather and record only what we think we will eventually publish, we hamstring ourselves from the onset.

An apparent oversight
CMOS’s statement that “previous versions will often be unavailable” is partially correct but curiously shortsighted. From a publisher’s standpoint, that may justify ignoring the date upon which an Internet writer made a particular assertion. From a researcher’s standpoint, that date can be critical to the analysis of another writer’s conclusions---as when a cited “fact” appears in a paper that predates knowledge of certain other facts. The CMOS statement also seems to ignore the existence of Internet Archives’ Wayback Machine, via which we can access material from millions of defunct web pages if we have a date on which it was previously available.

CMOS’s statement that an author may have consulted several revisions of a manuscript across time is also correct. However, academic publishers assume that an academic writer has consulted the last version and is citing the writer’s final conclusion. That is not an assumption we can make in our field.

The different needs of different fields
Writing in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1997 (3d ser., 54: 8), historian Gloria Main observed: “Professional genealogists hew to stricter rules of evidence and more rigorous citation practices than even professional historians.” Her point is an important one. (Caveat: her word “professional” should be replaced by the word “good.” Not all who do research for pay adhere to high standards and not all who adhere to high standards do research professionally.) The historians and other academics to whom CMOS is marketed typically have broader needs than genealogists and they have a higher tolerance of error on minor points. Their focus is History Writ Large. Ours is History in Microcosm. By and large, they focus on societal patterns. We focus on minute details about individuals whom historians often consider insignificant. Societal interpretations made by social scientists are drawn from the bell curve of their evidence. If they make a mistake on a bit of minutiae at one end or the other of the bell curve, it rarely affects their overall conclusion. For us, there is no bell curve; a misjudgment anywhere along our trail of evidence can be fatal. If---for lack of precision in recording or analyzing our information---we make a mistake in identity or kinship, every bit of work we do thereafter that is based on that misjudgment will multiply our error exponentially.

No one enjoys writing citations. We all wish we could shortcut them. We love to be told that this or that really isn’t essential. But, as researchers, we also recognize that different fields have different needs and that the needs of researchers and the needs of publishers are often at odds.

Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG
Samford University Institute of Genealogy & Historical Research

Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (1997)
QuickSheet: Citing Historical Resources, Evidence! Style (2005)
Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (forthcoming: August 2007)

Dear Elizabeth,
Thank-you for the detailed response to the series of blogs about citing sources. I had not yet made reference to the series on the APG list, because I am awaiting more feedback from readers. At the very least, encouraged readers to think about providing more informative citations. Your point is well taken when describing the difference between “professional” and “good” genealogists.

Looking forward to your August 2007 publication.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
Your friend in genealogy.

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