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November 18, 2017

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Pair of books anchor genealogical writing

Stefani Evans

Stefani Evans

Can a genealogist be too book-dependent?

I couldn't work without "The Chicago Manual of Style 15th Edition" (CMOS) and Elizabeth Shown Mills's "Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace" (EE). The two works sit side by side on 4 1⁄4 inches of prime bookshelf space next to my computer. I consult them almost daily, and I often need them when I travel. But because the books together weigh more than five pounds, I generally don't stick them in my suitcase.

To ensure I have access to both works from my computer I purchased "Evidence Explained" as an e-book from, and I subscribe annually to The Chicago Manual of Style Online.

I prefer real books—the kind I can savor and feel as I turn each page. I use the e-book EE as a quick index to the hard-bound version. I enter my search term in the e-book, click until I find what I need, and note the page number. I locate the appropriate entry in the hard-bound edition, where I might mull over the explanation, read the adjacent entries, and write some notes. The two editions complement each other, and they enable me to consult EE at any time.

My annual subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style Online not only provides me online access to the standard humanities style guide, but it also sends monthly Questions and Answers. I was most intrigued the first time I received the monthly Q&A by e-mail that included a link to the answers on the Web site. Questions deal with a variety of topics, and I find the answers helpful as well as amusing. I won't give away the answer (in this case useful, but not funny), but I will paraphrase the first question from the May Q&A, because it relates to the type of genealogical writing we do: Do we place footnotes after every sentence within a paragraph, even when the footnotes cite the same source and page?

I use CMOS when I need help with abbreviations, capitalizations, or numerations and to find rules for en dashes, em dashes, or hyphens. It tells me how I should spell Web site, Internet, and e-mail, and how I should format a cover sheet for a manuscript. If I'm unsure about a construct or grammar rule I check CMOS.

I refer to EE for my citation models because "most Evidence models treat original or electronic sources not covered by [CMOS], as well as some modifications that better meet the analytical needs of history researchers" (42). In other words, Evidence Explained helps us craft a citation for Aunt Rebecca's birthday quilt that she made during the Depression and now hangs in Cousin Mary's living room in Iowa City.

Mills explains the fundamentals of citation and evidence analysis in her first two chapters. She writes that genealogists need the explicit citation forms recommended in EE because "[m]odern standards for family history ... require more precision and rigor than commonly applied in social sciences, where individual oversights or errors on common folk tend to cancel each other out in the broader interpretations of society" (19). Further, Mills stresses in her book and in her lectures that "[c]itation is an art, not a science" (41). By that she means that her book offers models for genealogists to create their own citations for source lists (bibliographies), reference notes, and source labels. She presents the elements authors need to 1) to record where they found each source, and 2) to present information so others might be able to evaluate that source (43).

The two reference works anchor our genealogical writing. We need to present our work clearly and ensure that others can identify and evaluate our sources. I can't curl up with the e-book EE and CMOS online, but they make dandy travel partners.

Stefani Evans is a board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News, 2275 Corporate Circle, Third Floor, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].

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