Monday, March 30, 2009

Citing Sources: An Overview of Styles

By now I'm sure most people have seen this. I won't put in my two cents because I obviously agree with everyone in the GeneaBlogger community, especially footnoteMaven and The Genealogue (who both wrote wonderful responses to the article in question). What the article made me think of, after seeing through all the red that was clouding my vision, was the importance of source citations. This post is really more for anyone who doesn't have Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills, a book I'm sure most genealogists out there have. As a student I've had to do every kind of source citation under the sun. There is Chicago style (my favorite), MLA (the standard), as well as lesser forms such as APSA. I've never seen writing on any stones that said you had to cite genealogy sources a certain way, so I thought I'd present an overview of the different styles of source citation that I've had to do as a student. I use these types of source citation when doing genealogy work as well, especially Chicago style.

Chicago style:
  • works well with footnotes and endnotes.
  • favored style for historical writing as well as literature and arts citation.
  • is more flexible (in my opinion) when it comes to how to appropriately cite sources
  • Chicago Manual of Style

MLA (Modern Language Association of America) style:

  • widely used for academic writing and the standard style in general
  • MLA's official site (everyone should own one of their Handbooks)
  • very structured (i.e. Works Cited page alphabetized by author's last name) but also very thorough (you include just about EVERYTHING in your citation).
  • tackles how to cite a unique source to genealogists: personal testimony as well as sound recordings.

APSA (American Political Science Association) style:

  • lesser known, primarily used for political science writing.
  • good format for analytical writing
  • very similar to Chicago style but also combines elements from other styles like MLA.

These are websites I use frequently when I need help with source citation, each one a great resource for anyone who needs to cite work:

Also, I just saw that over on the GeneaBloggers site, there is a new post which lists some bibliography generators, something worth checking out.

In academics I'm usually forced to strictly follow a specific style (as a history major it is usually Chicago), but in genealogy I have the liberty of taking aspects of different styles that I like and combining them. Often times I don't care for the format of in-text citation of a certain style or the Works Cited/Bibliography format of a certain style, so I mix and match those. While Evidence Explained is a great book for genealogists and anyone who doesn't need to learn the various styles, it is well worth it to try and learn the MLA style at least as well as footnoting (which in a word processor can be inserted using the keys: Ctrl+Alt+F). There are also cardinal rules to source citation which are easy to remember regardless of format:

(For in-text citation)

  • Always try and include the name of the author of the source as well as where in the source the info you are citing is located, like page number. Use (parenthesis) with that information inside and put at the end of the sentence.

(For bibliographies/works cited)

  • Always try and have some order to the sources. In a good, thorough document you will find AT LEAST ten sources (and this is not one source repeated over and over). To keep some kind of organization to all the sources (and to make it easier for people to look up the sources) keep an order to them, be it through alphabetizing them or some other personal way- I know in genealogy I will sometimes organize my sources based on when the sources where written or recorded with the most recent coming last.
  • Always mention the publish status of the document. If the source is a family heirloom that was handwritten and never publish, mention that that source is unpublished. If the source is, for example, A History of Wabash Co., Indiana and Its People and was published, mention that it is! That way people will know if what you are citing is available (published) to them or not (unpublished) if they don't have a copy of the unpublished family heirloom.
  • Date your sources. Along with publish status include when the source was written, published, recorded, etc. You wouldn't want to leave a photograph undated would you? (We all know how frustrating that is!) Well, this is no different from that.
  • Include the page numbers cited in your source if possible. If the source is only a page or two then don't bother. If it is the size of War and Peace, however, you might want to go so far as to cite the paragraph number as well as page number.


  1. This is a very helpful article - I'm going to print it out and keep it handy!

  2. A great over view of source citation formats and method - thank you for providing this valuable summary!

  3. A really excellent article which deserves a much wider circulation. I would be more than happy to link back to it because it really does explain the process incredibly well.

    Take care


  4. Thank you all for your kind words, I really appreciate it! I'm glad you think it a helpful article, that's what I was hoping for. Paul, yes by all means, feel free to link to the post.


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