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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    On the Subject of Citing Sources

    FootnoteMaven recently posted an article on Working With Citations in which she shares her own method for organizing citations and using them in her writing. Fans of fM's blogs know that she is conscientious and meticulous when it comes to citations, so it should be no surprise that she is an advocate of the citation-guru, Elizabeth Shown Mills, and most of all, an advocate of standardizing sources.

    As an English teacher using MLA citation standards, I regularly encountered citation-psychosis diagnosed from symptoms exhibited in the classroom and on various assignments. Most notably, students suffering from this malady exhibited few outward signs. When the announcement was made for research papers requiring citations, these students accepted the assignment without comment. In contrast to those free of the disease, students who were later diagnosed with citation-related psychosis rarely asked questions or expressed confusion about the assignment. Unfortunately, this made it particularly difficult to determine those persons afflicted until it was too late. When the papers were submitted, one quick glance revealed students suffering in all stages of the disease. Instructors are quick to blame themselves – perhaps the lessons were too fast, too slow, the proximity to reference materials too far, too close. . .

    In Stage One, students exhibited minor errors such as misplaced punctuation or incorrect spacing and indenting. These were correctable with regular therapy.

    In Stage Two, papers were presented with multiple errors. Often the wrong format for the type of source was used, in addition to missing information. These problems were more severe and required remedial therapy and grade modification.

    In Stage Three, students exhibited listless and lack of emotion over the diagnosis. There were many many indicators of the disease. At times, the Works Cited page would be mislabeled as Bibliography, sources would be numbered rather than presented alphabetically, or sources would be incomplete missing major components. These students were often the most creative in presentation of the disease, but the least interested in recovery. Unfortunately, grade modification and therapy were rarely successful in reversing the illness, and parental intervention was often indicated.

    If a student fails to follow clear instructions for citing sources, it is usually due to plain old laziness. Online citation guides such as NoodleBib and EasyBib require some knowledge of source forms and considerable Thinking; often students just start guessing and even these "wonder sites" turn out a Works Cited that is incorrect. They can only be as accurate as the information they are given. Students have given many reasons for incorrect citations and Works Cited, some of my favorites:

    "This is how my mom/dad/brother/sister said to do it. They learned it that way in school and it is RIGHT." [when? What year?]

    "I couldn't find the format guide/MLA book/handout/library…" [hmmmm]

    "I remembered how to do it." [Right. It's wrong.]


    "Too much work."

    Unfortunately, citation-related psychosis is found in the RW (Real World) as well. When I returned to graduate school in 1997, I learned that MLA had changed quite a bit in the years since I had first learned its rigors. I would have nothing to gain except ridicule if I insisted on using out-dated protocol.

    As difficult as it may be to "learn new tricks," I think that genealogists and family history writers too have much to gain by accepting a standard format for citing sources. Since Elizabeth Shown Mills seems to have taken up the banner for proper citations, I am glad to follow along using her guidelines. I am not as careful as I should be with citing sources in blog posts, but I like to think that my family history writing is carefully and correctly documented.

    Thank you fM for starting this conversation. Maybe we can all jump on the bandwagon and help fight for consistent citations!

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    Reader Comments (3)


    Loved your article and saw many of the students I encountered in law school in it. Standardization is the key.

    My research and writing professor is nationally known and had exceptionally high standards. Ex.: The punctuation in a section that is italicized is not italicized. And you were marked down if it was.

    Incentive: There were judges who would refuse to read a motion if the citations were not correct. Explain that to a client.

    I think if students had to create a Master Citation file at the beginning of a writing assignment (write it once correctly) and then only had to drag and drop, we might have a few more citation converts.


    November 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterfootnoteMaven

    Thanks for your comment. I agree: consistency and standardization are key.

    I continue to be surprised at the number of older genealogists who resist ESM and the concept of a discipline-wide style. Each person wants others to adopt "their" style. It is a nightmare.

    My genealogy software, Legacy, uses ESM protocol as well, but as much as I do like EE, I think that it is difficult for beginners to use. The problem is not in finding the style, it is in understanding what type of source one is documenting. It gets complicated with a photocopy of an original on a web site using a document from.... That is where I get hung up.

    Your Master Citation file is similar to what we use in English papers as a Works Cited page, alas the buck stops there a bit short.

    November 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDenise L

    Hi Denise, we're" REL="nofollow">playing tag again, and you're it!

    November 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBecky

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