Citation is an Art; Multiple Formats Can All be Valid

In genealogy, citing your sources is vital.  But sometimes it feels like there are so many different types of citation formats to memorize, from vital records to online sources to samplers.  It can feel discouraging to try to format a citation on your own, and then discover that Elizabeth Shown Mills did it a different way somewhere, either in the hundreds of pages of the Evidence Explained book, or on one of her quicksheets, or on her website.

I came across a note from Elizabeth Shown Mills herself that gave me hope and encouragement in this area of citation formatting.  I would like to share it with you.  The topic is how citations are formatted in journals:

“the citation that might eventually be published is never the ideal citation for any researcher. Every publisher—even good scholarly journals—look for ways to shortcut citations in order to save space. (The printed page is expensive real estate.) It is also true that different editors shortcut in different ways. They fall into certain patterns or habits depending upon the type of sources their journal usually publishes.

“As researchers, our working citations need to be complete enough to do at least three things. The first two are the reasons you’ll find on the home page to this website.

  • Document the exact source in which we found a specific piece of information. (You know, the old reason we were taught in school: So other people will know that we didn’t just make up our assertions. {smile}.)
  • Identify our source well enough that we can evaluate its strengths and weaknesses and, with reasonable reliability, the likely accuracy of the information.

“But, from the standpoint of your specific question, there is a third consideration. We need to

  • Record enough information that, when we get to the point of submitting our work to Whatever Editor, we have all the information Whatever Editor needs—whatever pattern that journal follows. Otherwise, we find ourselves needing to relocate many sources to which we no longer have access, including even sources that no longer seem to exist in the vapor of the Internet.”

(source: Elizabeth Shown Mills comment on 30 Jan 2016 at 21:29 on topic “Citing Norway Church Books on DigitalArkivet (” at Evidence ( : accessed 24 May 2017))

So, by all means use the Evidence Explained reference book and other citation formatting sources.  Just consider that even different editors have different citation formatting preferences.  Record all the essential information.  That is the most important part.  Don’t get too caught up chasing the perfect format.  Citation is an art.

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