Monday, June 5, 2017

Mastering Genealogical Proof & Mastering Genealogical Documentation

Do you struggle with your research: what to cite and how to cite it clearly? I do. Over the years I have purchased and used several books to learn when and how to deal with reference materials, from hand drawn family trees, to online census reports, to published county genealogies. I bought the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers by Gibaldi & Achtert (1988). This is a nice guideline for writing, punctuation, etc. It does not deal with unique genealogical sources like photographs. I bought Cite Your Sources by Lackey (1980). It worked in general but there were always unique sources that did not fit in the format. There were suggestions for oral interviews but online sources were not in major use then. I bought Evidence: Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills (1997). This is full of great guidelines and examples. I constantly tried to find an example that was similar to my source to use.

Basically, I did not understand the ideas behind citations. However, while I was at the National Genealogical Society’s Conference in Raleigh I purchased two books by Thomas W. Jones. At the NGS Exhibit Hall booth I bought Mastering Genealogical Proof. In my hotel that evening I started reading it and things made sense! The next day Mastering Genealogical Documentation went on sale and I was fortunate to buy a copy before they sold out.

And, on the last day, I attended the NGS lunch and listened to Thomas W. Jones speak. In my post I wrote:

He talked about a serious problem among genealogists, ‘Citation Anxiety’, and had us laughing as we ate our lunches. The main message he shared was: Content is More Important than Form. By the end of the luncheon our anxieties were fading and I was actually looking forward to citing my sources.


Mastering Genealogical Proof
Arlington, VA: National Genealogical Society
2013




Mastering Genealogical Documentation
Arlington, VA: National Genealogical Society
2017

Since I have returned home I have been reading these two books and understanding. Every citation needs to answer five questions, when possible: Who? What? When? Where is the source? Where in the source is the information? Within this framework there is freedom to be flexible. A variation for a particular source is fine. Of course, there are correct ways to use colons, parenthesis, italics, etc. Those are not restraints. They help to clarify your source so the reader will understand where our information originated and where, if desired, they can find it for themselves.


I had been working on a document centering on the Alford branch of our family. I had 243 endnotes over ten pages. Sitting with Mr. Jones’ books I took notes on index cards of those five fundamental questions. I looked again at each citation. Several days later, I am now proud of my citations. I don’t need to print them in a tiny font and hope no one has a magnifying glass! My ‘Citation Anxiety’ has faded from an engulfing fog to a thin mist. Now I will work on the citations connecting to the document on the Ashley family. I have only two pages of endnotes and now I know much more about how to write citations! Want to get rid of your anxieties? Give these books a read.

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14 comments:

  1. Great post, I can relate and I'm definitely looking forward to ordering the new book.

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    1. Anna, thanks for stopping by & commenting. I hope you enjoy the new book as much as I have.

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  2. I agree Colleen, people can tie themselves up in knots trying to follow 'the rules' such that they miss the point completely. Apart from in an exam or in an article written for publication, where you're expected to follow a specific convention, I don't sweat it too much. Your 'five questions' approach sounds perfect.

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    1. Dara, you are very right. Thomas' five questions helped me to focus on how to write citations. Thanks for your comments!

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  3. "Content is more important than form." Truly words of wisdom. When I cite sources, my goal is to allow others to be able to retrace my steps and see the original if they wish. I don't worry so much about the abbreviations or punctuation, only that the sources is entirely clear. Thanks for this post!

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    1. Marian, your goal is just what Thomas W. Jones recommends in his books. You are way ahead of me. I am just learning.

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  4. I have the first. Definitely need to order Mastering Genealogical Documentation soon.

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    1. I have been reading both books, going back & forth between them. I always admire your precise citations. You never post without documenting your work. You are a great example for other bloggers!

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  5. Colleen,

    I want to let you know that your wonderful blog post is listed in today's Genealogy Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2017/06/janas-genealogy-fab-finds-for-june-9.html

    Have a great weekend!

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    1. Thanks, Jana. It is always an honor to be listed on your page.

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  6. Thanks so much for this post, Colleen. I really must borrow these books from the library or buy them. Like you, I used Mills's Evidence, searching for as close to identical citation as possible but never quit found any and then just fudged. I would like to lose the citation anxiety, too!

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    1. Nancy, I was an expert at 'the fudge'. ha! I'm glad now to use Jones' open framework at a bit of creativity to write citations, as long as they answer the five questions [who, what, when, where is & where in] in a clear manner.

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  7. I found this post through Randy Seaver's Best series at Genea-Musings. Thanks for your very helpful blog post. I suffer from citation anxiety and Thomas Jones' soothing approach to documentation is my Prozac ;-) Thanks for blogging and sharing - I wish we were cousins.

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    1. Janet, I'm glad you came by and left a comment. Thomas W. Jones certainly knows what he is writing about. I'm sure he has helped many people with the same anxiety. There is still work involved in the process but it is clearer and easier to achieve after reading his books. And the result makes is easier for the next person to retrace your research steps to find the source you used. Thanks, honorary cousin, please visit again.

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