Friday, May 1, 2009

I Have No Answers - Only Questions and Thoughts

Good good good good citations
I'm pickin' up good citations
Your giving me excitations
Good good good good citations [1]

I can barely find my way around the html on my blog, much less understand the technical discussions proffered by Mark Tucker of Think Genealogy in his series "Better Online Citations." I had some questions regarding the series, so I emailed Mark and he was kind enough to respond. He has agreed to allow me to discuss those emails.

The following thoughts and questions may make me sound technically challenged. Which I readily admit I am. I will give you some of my citation background prior to that discussion.

I write my own citations. I spent a great deal of time and money in law school learning to write citations. In some courts the consequence of improper citation formats in a brief is that the entire brief will be thrown out by the court. Clients, rightly so, find this infuriating and expensive in both time and money. Lawyers should find it embarrassing.

So I paid close attention in my legal writing class. May I take just a moment to brag on my alma mater, Seattle University School of Law? It has the number one Legal Writing Program in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report. I had excellent teachers.

Does this mean I always correctly format citations? No. I will admit to online complacency. My blog will not be thrown out if I don't have perfect citations. That said, I don't want to short change those we read my blog and would love to find the source of my information. I'm trying to make a real effort on my blogs as well as my research to provide correct citations. I try to be scrupulous regarding my citations in my genealogy program.

If I could have one wish, it would be citation standardization. I am always distressed by those who write citation articles concerning genealogy who give MLA, APA, Chicago/Turabian, and Elizabeth Shown Mills examples; saying it is better to cite using some form than to have no citation at all.

Yes, it is best to cite, but it is far better to have citation standardization. And why reinvent the wheel when we have the brilliant work of Elizabeth Shown Mills? She has given us the templates for so many of the most commonly used sources for genealogists in her book Evidenced Explained, a necessity for every serious family historian. And I recommend we all get serious.

Mark's series deals with the online "big boys." Those purveyors of information on a large scale that do not have to be named, we all know them. Looking at how each cites now, often makes me dizzy and they use Mills as the basis for their work.

My first question - Why would they adopt citation standardization? Will it make them more money or increase their paid customers?

Mark responds that "The top 3 things that an online genealogy business cares about are: subscription revenue, customer loyalty, and web page hits. If we can figure out how citing online sources can significantly increase any of these, then this effort just might be successful."

Now this is just me, but why would I choose one "big boy" over the other based on whether or not they provide citations? I wouldn't. I would choose one over the other based on the content they offered that is applicable to my research. The level and quality of the material offered is of far more importance than providing standardized citations. Particularly when we are talking about money out of this very Scottish purse. Yes, I'd use it. Yes, it would be convenient. Yes, I'd love it. Yes, but with a little effort, I can write my own for free.

[Mark] "I see your point about choosing a provider based on content."

To make this work, all the "big boys" must play. What would motivate them?

[Mark] "Not exactly sure what will motivate the big boys. Maybe they want to be good stewards of the records. Not so sure that they believe it will make them any more money. I wonder if the genealogy community voted for proper citations vs. more records, which would win."

If implemented, what happens to those years and myriad databases that already exist? Will new additions and databases use the proposed method and the older the present citation formats until they can be converted? Or does the method proposed automatically select the information from the older databases and configure it in a new format? (I warned you, I know nothing.) If it isn't automatic then we will have two formats for every "big boy," and probably for quite some time. In my opinion, upgrading older citation formats will not bring in as many customers as new material.

[Mark] "I think conversion of old citation formats to new will have to be done manually. Would citing new sources really cost big bucks? Someone already has to understand the content of each database that comes online in order to write whatever form of citation is currently provided. A little training and they could do it with little extra cost. I feel a way could be devised to add citations to existing content maybe with the help of the genealogy community and volunteers."

Were I one of the "big boys" I'd do a cost benefit analysis and I'm betting content would win. Volunteers working for the "for profit big boys" also brings up the age old discussion of providing the labor of the genealogical community and then being charged for it.

The citations for every "big boy" would have to be exactly the same and exactly correct. If there are too many variations between the citations created and corrections are required, I'll just write it myself. Yes, I have the advantage of knowing how and I certainly see the advantages of a "one click" method. But I would hate to see the entire genealogical community using something that isn't correct or being frustrated in an attempt to make corrections for the sake of expediency. Then the entire point of this citation method has failed.

I research so many more places than the "big boys." I am always at the Library of Congress (LOC) and many of the newspaper archives, not to mention my great love, Google Books. What of this?

[Mark] "There is a plugin for the Firefox browser called Zotero that is able to identify entries on a web page and import fields for a citation. The way it works is to create specific code for each website. For example, visiting Amazon and accessing book details will allow adding the fields corresponding to book. This is an example of non-Amazon-owned code identifying source field values. Either something like that will need to be done or the websites themselves will have to support the file format. Some already have a defined file format as is the case with WorldCat."

I would like to see two forms of citation created; the Source List Entry and the First Full Reference Note. Shown Mills gives us all three and it is very useful. Three would be great.

[Mark] "The Full Reference usually has a superset of the fields defined for the Source List. As long as all fields are gathered for the Full Reference, a citation can be created for both."

Could there be an independent website? You find the information in an online database, copy the url, insert it in a form on the independent website and a standardized citation is configured? There are probably too many variables for this; it would be wonderful though and I could use it for Google books and the LOC.

[Mark] "Interesting idea. Maybe that is possible. Follows closely the idea of Zotero mentioned earlier."

If we find no interest from any of the "big boys," why couldn't something like NoodleBib be created using the Shown Mills models? It certainly would have advertising potential. I understand that this would be much more time consuming than a "one click" approach, but if the "big boys" weren't interested in putting up the "big bucks" would it work? I also love the fact NoodleBib educates the user regarding citations and allows for annotation. I often annotate my sources.

[Mark] "That might be another approach. There are many citation tools like Zotero, NoodleBib, EndNote, RefWorks, and EasyBib. Maybe we can approach them as a genealogy community and encourage them to support EE-style which as I understand it is an extension of Turabian."

Would you as a genealogist pay for a site that formatted all of your citations according to the Shown Mills method? Depending on the amount charged, I would for the sake of expediency and the ability to convert every source I use.

Now you know what's on my mind. Really not the technical approach, more common sense questions in a genealogical content world that is driven by money and marketing.

Thank you, Mark, for your time and patience. You do our genealogical community a great service.

What's on your mind. Sound off in the comments. Let's hear what you think.


[1] Wilson, Brian, and Mike Love. “Good Vibrations.” Lyrics. Good Vibrations, Single. Brian Wilson, 1966. Copyright ©1966 & 1978, Brian Wilson and Mike Love. Lyrics Freak ( : accessed 18 October 2007). Parody.

Exact email questions and conversations have been condensed for the sake of brevity and continuity.


Blogger Sheri Fenley said...

I applaud anyone who is taking the time to help genealogists understand the importance of correct source citation. Making it user friendly and/or a "one click" process of creating them is exactly what is needed to get everyone doing it. With people like you fM and clever Mr. Tucker, that day is coming sooner than we think!

May 1, 2009 at 1:22 PM  
Blogger Craig Manson said...

A very thoughtful post. Like you, I probably have no answers, but I would think the likely scenario would be one of the businesses you mention taking up the challenge (and then may be being acquired by one of the "big boys"!). I would certainly pay (some amount) for the convenience.

May 1, 2009 at 3:28 PM  
Anonymous Patti Hobbs said...

I would rather the money be spent on more content than on developing correct citations. I can always do the citations, but I can't readily obtain digital images of source records. I tried out Zotero a little bit. I don't remember what I discovered about the way it does citations, but something was wrong with them. I didn't do extensive testing on this, so certainly my limited judgment could be wrong. It seems like the only way that anyone could be assured of correct citations is by knowing citation formatting well enough to recognize correctness. And if we have to do that, we might as well write them ourselves. If something has to be tweaked, most likely it's easier just to do it yourself. We already know that the citation information given at is not usually correct. Only someone who understand citation format (ala ESM) would recognize that something wasn't right. I know this won't be popular, but often having something available like that just makes us lazy and we have no reason to go ahead and learn it ourselves.

May 1, 2009 at 4:06 PM  
Blogger Diana Ritchie said...

I'll weigh in for all the "lazy" people! I absolutely see the necessity for well sourced data. I will also admit that having just finished up some classes that involved writing papers I made extensive use of a site called Citation Machine. Yes, I sometimes had to "tweak" the results - and I had to understand how to do APA type citations to do that. But I loved having a website that would format things correctly for me. If there was a website out there that would "do" ESM-type citations for me - let me fill out some fields and then press a button...I would definitely be there!

In the mean time, I'm just glad that there is so much help available from the GeneaBlogging community - I am always in awe of the collective intelligence out there!

May 3, 2009 at 1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Machine-generated citations are less error prone & less tedious than human-generated citations. They're not perfect, but drawing from a single database & being able to switch between styles makes reference managers useful. I have found Zotero-generated citations to be pretty good. Garbage in leads to garbage out, of course. But it is better to fix data once. I hope you reported your issues to the zotero developers: the project is open source & they'd love to improve it.

May 6, 2009 at 10:09 AM  
Blogger GeneJ said...

While at some point web sites that provide content might find it advantageous to "weigh in" or "buy in" to some "system," my frustrations are more directed at an inability to make my evidence data fit in the limitations of GEDCOM.
I've suspect that software developers have had a similar problem--perhaps that is why, to this non-techie, their methodologies seem to differe so.
I looked at EndNote more than once, always hoping it better supported more genealogy sources; ditto, that genealogy software developers would develop a way to work with the product.

June 28, 2009 at 6:31 AM  
Blogger Brett Payne said...

I employ the Zotero Firefox add-on for citing web page resources that I have used, exporting the result with a RIS-format file to EndNote (a very simple "click a button"-type process). If you have EndNote, or something similar, it's a relatively easy option, and I usually only have to make minor changes to the citation in the EndNote database once it's imported. Not perfect, but it's a start.

I strongly recommend that folk use something like EndNote though. Having learnt to do citations in the "old school" way for my first degree almost 30 years ago, and having just completed a post-grad, using EndNote as an add-on for MS Word ... well, what an astounding difference. Many academic citations are already formatted online, but it's not difficult to enter others into the EndNote database. And never repeat a citation again. Once it's there, you have it for good. I'm a convert.

February 22, 2011 at 6:10 PM  

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