On Source Citations

My son and I have been looking for ideas for a research project he can complete by the end of this school year. I suggested doing a one to three page biography of a family member who lived during a time period he enjoys studying. After a bit of thinking, he decided on a Revolutionary War veteran ancestor who died during that conflict. One reason I suggested this particular ancestor was because I have very little information on him, and what I do have was given to me by other researchers who neglected to put source citations on their documentation.

I wanted to see what, if anything, had already been published on this man and/or his family, so I did a quick search of the Internet.1 In particular, I wanted to see if I could find a source for information given to me about this man’s parents. Lo and behold, one of the first returns for my search was a lengthy article tracing the Revolutionary War veteran’s lineage back to Great Britain, several generations previous, and forward through a collateral line to late-19th century descendants.

The article when printed ran to about 18 pages, so you can imagine the kind of detail included. In spite of its length, there were only eight footnotes, six of which were explanations of items in the text and two of which were truncated source citations.2 I scanned the article looking for in-text, informal citations and found a small handful of vague references like “according to records held” in XYZ county or “land records indicate” or similar remarks.

Eighteen pages, eight source citations. That’s problematic, especially considering that there were numerous statements of “fact” made without any references to pertinent documents whatsoever. Unfortunately, at least one of these “facts” (the relationship between the veteran and his parents) has already been disseminated widely to researchers of this family as absolute truth. Everyone seems to have overlooked the fact that the author of this article only speculated as to whether several of these generations were related in the manner stated. The lack of documentation only compounds the problem because there’s no way for any other researcher to take the specific path the author did through the records used to compile the article.

I’ve been reading a variety of blogs where researchers complain about the push to source Internet-published research. It’s not the bloggers who are complaining, generally speaking, but the readers. To be certain, source citations are a hot-button issue amongst genealogists, even those who would never think to publish their research without including specific references to supporting documentation. For the latter group, the discussion revolves more around how to craft source citations, but for the former group, the complainers, the debate is still focused on whether or not source citations are necessary.

I think it’s well past time that we reframed that debate, and I’m going to use myself as an example of why and how.

I first encountered the Internet in 1996, give or take a year. By 1998, I was actively researching online, as much as one could do in those days. In November 1998, I took over the USGenWeb site for Rabun County and began transcribing documents to place online. I learned how to write HTML. And I began posting my own research problems online on message boards and through mailing lists. I even went so far as to place actual research online. But I conveniently forgot everything I had learned in high school and college and did not give specific references to much of what I placed online.

That bit me on the hiney in a couple of ways. First, I had a huge problem with people sending me my own research, lifted verbatim from message board posts or, in a couple of cases, my own web site. I figured that by the time it made it back to me, the information was several times removed from its original place of publication. Otherwise, surely the senders would have recognized that the author of the post (or whatever) and the person to whom they were sending this “research” were one and the same. Right?

Then I encountered a second problem: Some of my research was wrong, and there it hung out on the Internet for God and everybody to see. Worse, I knew it had been embedded into other people’s work, if only because it had been out there for so long. If I had put better source references with those posts, messages, and so forth, then perhaps another researcher might have caught my mistakes and helped me correct them before things got out of hand. But no, that didn’t happen. I caught them myself, yanked everything I could off the Internet, and have spent the past few years trying to correct what couldn’t be taken down.

The end result is that I’m now a lot pickier about what I place on the Internet and how. I’m also extremely careful about using someone else’s work, to the point of nearly completely ignoring undocumented research. When I see my old undocumented research out on the web, in whatever form it takes, I cringe and vow to do better in the future because now I know better. And that is the caveat. If researchers won’t cite their sources, then they can’t expect to be taken seriously in any way, because other researchers, careful researchers, know better than to trust undocumented research. It’s like finding food on the floor: you pick it up to throw it away but you would never, ever eat it, no matter how hungry you are, because you don’t know where it’s been.

I look at it this way: It doesn’t matter if genealogy is a labor of love or a profession. Either way, it costs a lot in time, money, and labor. Shouldn’t we then go the extra mile and do it right? The author of the piece that inspired this post obviously put a lot of effort into that article, researching in a wide variety of records across several states. The lack of specific references, i.e. source citations, has rendered the whole into a nearly useless ramble. All that effort wasted because the author failed to document his work. What a shame, for both the author and the reader.

* * * * *

1. I homeschool my son. For this project, Caleb will be conducting the research on his own, although I will help by suggesting sources, helping him formulate a research plan, and providing published finding aids, not necessarily in that order. But, he’s 14 so I’ll be checking behind him, which means conducting at least part of the research (like an Internet search) separately. Yes, he will receive a grade for his work, both for the research and the final product.

2. As an example, both source citations were similar to “XYZ County Marriages 4: 123.” The lack of a holding office is less of a problem than the lack of a state where the county is located, although clues in the text help overcome this problem.

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