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Sources and Searches

By Daniel Hubbard | September 2, 2012

Last week I was thinking about lists and logs. I also spent a little time thinking about where I store the information about my sources. I’ve even drawn flow charts to try to streamline what I do and think about my routines. This week I’ve been thinking about information about sources, and how that process fits into research.

The Citation Situation

Once genealogists realize they need to keep track of their sources, the next step is to figure out what needs to be recorded about those sources. At first, one tends to jot down whatever minimal information that is obvious enough, so a “citation” might look like, “John Doh, The Simpson Family Archives” or “FHL film 123456.” Not really sufficient but far better than nothing. When I do a beginning genealogy lecture, the rule of thumb I give is to imagine that you need to find the source again, years later and you don’t want it to take a lot of time, so write down now everything you would want to know then to help you locate the exact information you are using. Not a perfect rule but it does give some motivation for recording the information.

Then comes properly citing sources. There is a motivation for this as well. Any ad hoc process means that you need to think trough what it is that you actually should be recording. That isn’t so bad if you find one bit of information per month but if it is several things per day every day, it simply takes too much time to think it all through. I’m not a big fan of any peripheral thinking that pulls my mind away from any chance for an insight about the document. Beyond that, there is no guarantee that you will think it through correctly. So then one learns to consult a reference book that explains how to form the citation. That reduces the time thinking about how to form the citation but it still is not always quick. Figuring out what part of Evidence Explained to read, pulling out the proper format, and perhaps bending it to the unique situation, takes time and thought as well.

“This one is just right…”

Years ago, a colleague had designed some apparatus and asked me if I knew how to instruct people to use the right amount of glue when putting it together. I thought for a moment and he said, “It will be held together under pressure while the glue dries. The right amount to use is ‘too much.’ It’s really fast to use too much, it takes too much time to try to get it perfect and if they use too little, it will fall apart. If they use too much, the press will just squeeze out the excess.” Often the effort wasted on a little overkill is less than the effort needed to decide exactly when to stop.

With that thought in mind, I’m going to make an attempt. Too often I’ve found myself hunting for just the right example to follow in Evidence Explained when I really should be focusing on the task at hand. With some rules of thumb that err on the side of overkill, and a structure for what I record so that everything is clearly labelled written into a little software, I hope to stop thinking about whether or not I need a bit of information for a citation and and certainly not worry about comma placement. The time for those things is later. When discoveries are being made and the pieces are falling into place isn’t the time to ponder exactly what form a final citation would take. Recording the necessary information about a source and composing a proper citation aren’t the same thing and they need not occur at the same time.

Aiming to err just a bit on the side of overkill ought to be just right for capturing the information without distraction. The day I hear my son ask, “Daddy, why did you assign my math worksheet to record group 07A?” I’ll know its time to back off on the overkill.*

Search Citations

It seems to me that there is another thing to consider. If I go back to my rule of thumb for beginners and change it a bit, what would I want to know if I needed to find a source tomorrow? That isn’t necessarily the same information. If I found something in a database after a long struggle, the search that led to success is clearly not what first comes to mind. Perhaps a name was badly mangled and a date was off and even a few other things were haywire. I want to know what search I performed. Someday the index might be changed and the search will fail. Until then the successful search terms can be very useful. I might also be able to make use of the amazingly long and strange URL that is almost certain to be what points to the final result of my search. That URL isn’t guaranteed to work next month or even next week. Nevertheless, until the inevitable day when the site is reworked, that URL might just save some time. These things would never be used for a source citation. Years from now they will be of no use. Tomorrow, I might need them, so I keep my “search citations” with my sources as well.

* If he adds, “You know it should be record group 08B!” then I’ll know it is time for some damage control.

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