Monday, June 24, 2013

In Form vs. Substance, Substance Reigns Supreme in Genealogy Citation

Over the last week or so several genealogy blogs have taken up the topic of citation in genealogy.   Today at  Genea-Musings Randy Seaver summarizes the same three blog posts I read over the last week or so:  James Tanner at Genealogy's Star on June 2nd; Bill West at West in New England on June 17th; and Harold Henderson at Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog on June 21st. Below is the two cents worth I had prepared on this topic based on comments I posted on Bill West and Harold Henderson's blogs over the last few days.
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As a graduate student many years ago, I taught a couple of courses at the college level.  Several years later I taught legal research and writing at a paralegal school and a local community college. The college and later courses were from different disciplines so, of course, each had their own citation peculiarities. 

I was once told that many of the citation conventions (regardless of the academic discipline) were holdovers from days when typesetting demands, labor and costs drove spacing, abbreviation, and other citation "rules." I don't know how true this explanation is, but I dutifully taught "proper" citation form in my classes and then always told the students that the MOST important thing is really not the form of the citation because proper form can still contain errors. The most important thing is to provide enough ACCURATE information that anyone wanting to go to your source can find it quickly, easily and precisely.  I stressed that the first and foremost duty of source citation is to get the substantive information right and then worry about the format -- especially if you are trying to publish in a journal or other academic publication.  I know many purists in a wide variety of academic disciplines have cringed at "improper" formatting, but the true test is can one find the source with the information supplied no matter whether it meets punctilious citation form or not.   I believe this to ultimately be just as true in the field of genealogy as in other disciplines.  

I don't want anyone to get me wrong . . . I believe citation of sources is very important and while I usually do not use formal citation here on The Prism, I have done so carefully where I have published previously in a professional journal or magazine.  The use of conventional citation form has its place for immediate recognition of the source location in an economic space, but citation in my view is an action.  It is what one does to point others toward the source for a fact or assertion one is making.  As such, a citation (in the noun sense) has two necessary parts:  the substantive information it contains and the form or format in which the information is presented.  I maintain that by far the more important element is the substantive information and I offer examples below to make my point.

In the discipline of law, the bible for proper citation has long been the so-called Bluebook.  It prescribes the rules or conventions of order, abbreviation, spacing and punctuation for "proper" citation.  For citation to decisions of the United States Supreme Court there are up to four different sources for finding the ruling or decision of the Court in a given case.  They are: United States Reports, which is the official publication of the U.S. Government; the Supreme Court Reporter, which is an unofficial reporter usually cited as the first option to United States Reports; and two others, United States Supreme Court Reports -- Lawyer's Edition and United States Law Week.

To illustrate the importance of substantive information over form, let's take the famous school desegregation case of Brown, et al, versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.  

The proper citation form for this case in the official reporter is Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).  This tells a reader familiar with legal citations that the decision was rendered by the United States Supreme Court in 1954 and the Court's ruling can be found in the official reporter, United States Reports, beginning at page 483 in Volume 347 of that official reporter. The ruling of the Court in Brown could also be cited as Brown v. Board of Education, 74 S. Ct. 686 (1954).  This tells the reader to find the same decision of the Court at Volume 74 of the reporter known as the Supreme Court Reporter beginning at page 686. Both of these are correct citations for the famous Brown decision and are proper as to form.  The order would be the official cite first followed by the parallel citation . . . Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686 (1954).  However, one could also write as a source citation . . .  "Brown et al., vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (decided 1954) at Vol. 347 United States Reports beginning at page 483 and also at Vol. 74 of Supreme Court Reporter beginning at page 686."  This would NOT be proper citation form (particularly for a scholarly legal article), but does anyone doubt that the "improper" citation contains all the necessary information for a reader to find the source quickly, easily and precisely?  

Now contrast the above citations to Brown with the following cite which is in proper form, but would make it nearly impossible for someone to find the case report.   Brown v. Board of Education, 74 U.S. 686, 347 S. Ct. 483 (1954).  As one can quickly see, the citation is correct in form but totally wrong in substance -- it switches the volume and page numbers and assigns them to the wrong reporter.  A reader could go to volume 74 of United States Reports page 686, but I can guarantee you that the reader would not find the Brown decision there.  It is the substantive information that is most important NOT the form.  As illustrated earlier, one can mix up the order and presentation of the substantive information and violate the rules of proper citation and yet still allow a reader to find the cited source quickly, easily and precisely.  You cannot maintain the citation form and mix up the substantive information and have any hope of finding the source quickly, easily and precisely.  I am sure I could provide a similar example using a genealogy citation to illustrate this point -- the presentation of accurate substantive information in a citation reigns supreme over punctilious demand for proper form and order in a citation!

Are use of accepted citation rules and conventions important?  Yes they are for purposes of speedy recognition and communication to those immersed in the subject at hand and for formal, academic publication purposes.  But in my humble opinion in this discussion over use of proper citation form, the ultimate goal of providing sufficient information to allow quick, easy and precise location of the cited source is most important!  As to evaluating the quality and quirks of a cited source, I would submit that those evaluations are best performed by going to the source itself and making the evaluation on the substance at the source level and not on the simple basis of the citation itself.

Just my two cents worth.  

And as Randy Seaver did, I want to thank James, Bill, Harold and Randy himself for raising this subject and initiating the dialog! 

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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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1 comment:

  1. Hi John,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in my Fab Finds post this week at

    Have a great weekend!