Source Citations in Genealogy: Church or Cult?

Source Citations in Genealogy
Hey, guess what?  I got some email about that post yesterday.  Color me shocked.

In particular, I got one from a guy who tried to post a comment (clue:  if you use a fake name and fake email address, I can’t respond to you).  The gist of it was that I’m a boob because I think source citations are unnecessary.

Let me be really clear on this:  I am a devout member of the Church of Citations.

I cite my sources.  I believe everyone else should cite their sources.  I’m tremendously frustrated when someone shares their research with me, and I can’t tell if it’s brilliant or terrible, because I can’t see where they got the information.  I agree with the people who say that one of the biggest challenges in genealogy right now is dealing with crappy research that proliferates on the internet.  I believe that even the newest newbie should carefully record where she finds every piece of information she gathers.  My biggest regret in my genealogical life is that I wrote down dumb things like “1900 census” for my sources when I started out.

Source citations are important.  I believe this.

What I don’t believe in is the Cult of Citations.  The Cult is different from the Church.  The Cult is so intense that it freaks people out.  It accepts no compromise, no continuum, no baby steps.  It will say in public that people who don’t agree are wrong wrong WRONG.  Nobody wants to join a cult, and when people see members of the Cult, they run.  They run far and fast, so that the cult can’t catch them.  The problem is that when they run, the Church can’t catch them either.  So they remain unsaved heathens who don’t cite their sources.

Now, why would that be a good thing?

And the thing is, the members of the Cult of Citations are right.  They’ve worked hard for the past 30 years to clean up the field, and they’ve done an admirable job (truly).  They’re upset that there’s still so much crap out there.  They’re upset that after all that work, the internet has allowed the pile of crap to grow exponentially.  They’re upset that people are poo-pooing the idea that nobody can appreciate your hard work on your tree if they can’t evaluate where the information came from.  They’re right when they say that we all need to cite sources in the same standard way, with the stuff in the same order, so that it’s not a big sloppy mess.  Cult members:  You’re right.  You’re right on every point.  I’m not arguing with you.

But when you are condescending, people run away.  When you express your frustration with the nonbelievers in public, people run away.  When you say, “The comma goes here, not THERE.  That was 1972,” people run away.  When you imply that every source must be in the perfect Evidence Explained format from the get-go, people run away.  And when they run away, they don’t come back.  We lose them.  And then we have crap trees with no sources, and it’s our own fault.  People who aren’t yet saved see that gleam in your eyes, and they become hypersensitive to what you say.  They know you’re trying to convert them, and they don’t like it (even though they really do need converting).  They think you’re making things hard.  They don’t understand your zeal.

Again:  It’s not that you’re not right.  You are.  It’s that it’s not working.

I was blown away by the contempt I heard from regular, average genealogists at RootsTech.  They seemed…well, disgusted.  One of them actually used the term “cult” to describe people who think source citations are important.  I wouldn’t have necessarily used that term, but perception is reality, and these are people we need to reach.  We’re not reaching them.  We’re actively turning them off.  They’re wrong and we’re right, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s not working.

I think we should start telling newbies this:

  1. Buy Evidence Explained.  Read the first two chapters.  That’s the part you really need to understand when you’re new—the principles of analysis and citation.  You don’t need to worry all that much about where the semicolon goes.  It’s okay if you’re new and you don’t care about that.  That’s normal.
  2. When you’re working on your research, gather every bit of info you can on every piece of information you find.  If you pull something out of a book, write down everything on the title page, plus the page number and all that stuff.  If you’re looking at a census film, write down exactly where you got it, what page it was on, what website you found it on and when—everything.  If you’re in doubt about whether you need a detail, write it down.  Don’t worry about the format.  Just gather the citation information.
  3. When you go to publish your stuff, pull out Evidence Explained.  It will tell you how to put the information you have in the right order for your citations.  You don’t need to worry about the format until you publish it.  You just need to HAVE the information.

See, when I talk to people about why they hate citations, I find that it’s not the gathering of the citation information they hate.  It’s the formatting.  People find that getting it in the right format is hard, and they don’t want to do it.  We need to make it abundantly clear that it’s okay to sin in your own files in terms of the formatting.  It’s okay if the page number and the publisher date are reversed, as long as you have the citation information.  The goal is to be able to find the stuff again…not to be a formatting saint.  It would be delightful if everyone’s files had perfect citations in them, but they don’t, and by implying that that’s even an appropriate goal, we’re losing people.  It’s not working.

The other thing I think we need to stop doing is talking about the mechanics of citations on all of the well-known public listservs.  Way, WAY more people read those than I ever imagined (far more that the subscriber numbers would indicate, I believe).  When they see the dialog about citations and semicolon placement, they get the idea that that’s all the glitterati cares about.  They see people rigorously debating how a citation would appear, and even when the people involved know each other and are fine with the tenor of the dialog, to an outsider, it can appear contentious.   I know that that’s not always true, but the perception is definitely out there.  Beginning and intermediate genealogists see those discussions, and they’re intimidated.  They turn away.  It’s not working. If I were crowned queen, I’d create a list just for source citation questions.  That way, the semicolon placement specialists could parse their brains out, and we could all benefit from their wisdom…without having a disproportionate emphasis on the mechanics of source citations on the professional lists.  People who truly need help could get it, and we could make sure that we aren’t overwhelming people who aren’t yet members of the Church (and in fact, I think most real churches keep their doctrine discussions fairly private for that very reason).

Maybe my anonymous email pal is right, and I’m a boob.  But there are lots of boobs out there, and if you want to be able to reach them…well, you’d better learn to speak boob.

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