Interview – Elizabeth Shown Mills

[Editor's Note: Recently I had the pleasure of conducting an e-mail interview with Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of QuickSheet: Citing Online African-American Historical Resources which was recently review here at GeneaBloggers. Mills is the author of numerous articles and books including Evidence Explained and Professional Genealogy.]

The QuickSheet: Citing Online African-American Historical Resources is only one in a series of genealogy research “quick sheets” that you’ve developed to assist researchers. What inspired you to create these tools for genealogists?

User demand!

What is important to remember about citing online sources vs. more traditional ones such as documents, newspapers, books, etc.?

The most important point to remember is the sameness, not the difference. Whether we are citing a source from a physical place or a virtual place, we need to record two types of data:

  • Details that enable us and others to understand the nature of the source and gauge its reliability.
  • Details that enable us and others to find the source again.

Beyond that, the fact that our source is online, rather than on paper or other material, does not change its basic nature. A deed book is a deed book. A tombstone is a tombstone. An article is an article. A published abstract is a published abstract. Therefore, the basic citation remains the same.

The main difference created by digital publication of a source is that we may have more “layers” to cite.  For example:

  • When we find record images online (the equivalent of the original record), we cite that as we would the record itself. That’s the first layer. Then we cite the digital publication (database, website, etc.) in which we found it. That’s the second layer. If the digital publication cites its own source (which it should!), we need to add that third layer to our citation because it speaks to the quality of the record and will help us find the actual record whenever one thing or another requires it.
  • When we find database entries online (the equivalent of published abstracts, indexes, and other derivative materials), we cite that as we would a book or article that offers published abstracts. Then, if the database cites its own source (which it should!), we add that layer.

Websites and databases are basically cited the same way as print publications. If we’re citing a website with only one offering (the equivalent of a book), then the basic elements are these:

Creator/Author, The Publication Title in Italics (Place of publication/URL : date of publication or access), specific item or spot.

If we’re citing a website that has multiple articles or databases, then the citation is basically the same as if we were citing a book with individually authored chapters:

Article/Database Creator, “Article/Database Title in Quotation Marks,” Website Creator/Owner/Whatever, The Website Title in Italics (Place of publication/URL : date of publication/access), specific item in the database or article.

What is the most bizarre artifact or piece of evidence you’ve ever had to cite as a source? And can you give us the source citation?

Bathroom wallpaper.  My husband loved ‘rustic’ décor and thought it would be cool to have his home-office bathroom papered like one he saw at a country steakhouse: with newspapers. Being not so rustic, I found a designer version of the idea, ordered two rolls for the untiled upper half of the room, and then launched the Great Wallpapering Adventure one day while he was out. Needless to say, my focus was on matching seams and motifs, not the content of the paper. Hubby came home, was duly surprised, then sat on his throne while I went back to my office across the hall to edit someone’s NGSQ article. That’s when I heard the Genealogical Whoop that translates into Hot-diggety! I just found Somebody! There, in column three of some page of an unidentified newspaper reproduction, was the obituary of George Spillman.

Given that citation is an art, not a science, I’ll let all your readers have fun with developing their own citations to this.

What advice would you give to someone who, like many of us, might have pursued the hunt for ancestors without regard for citing their sources and is now having regrets? How does one start the process of adding source citations to years’ worth of genealogy data?

Ah, Dear Thomas!  It’s not just many of us who have this problem, it’s virtually everybody! Think of all the poor souls who started genealogy 25 years ago, using software that had no citation capability at all. I’ll guarantee you, they still have “genealogical data” with no idea of where it came from or how trustworthy it might be.

The remedy is just a version of the old advice about how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. Or: one ancestor at a time. We all have ancestral lines we’re stuck on. Each roadblock we hit offers a good opportunity to re-evaluate what we know about the problem person—to relocate the evidence; cite it properly; and rethink its reliability, significance, directions in which it may be pointing us.

Finally, as we come up on the RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City this week, how is technology helping genealogists and other researchers to cite their sources? What advances have you seen over the past five years?

Five years, Thomas, is a blip. Let’s look at thirty.

Technology came into genealogy as a tool, but it quickly became a teacher.  The dominant teacher. Folks of the 80s and early 90s, who set out on a family-tree-climbing adventure, bought software and followed its instructions. If Program XYZ carried no data-entry screens for use in identifying sources, then users ‘learned’ that sources did not matter. Climbing a family tree was just a matter of finding stuff, doing data entry, and pushing the “print” key.

The 90s saw great advances on The Evidence Front. By the end of that decade, virtually every software program ‘taught’ its users that genealogy was not just about looking up names and dates. Genealogists who did not consider the merits of each source would end up chasing phantoms, because they had not created real people.

The 2000s then brought us The Data Explosion. We now have more online providers of historical materials than any of us will ever live long enough to explore. Both commercial sites and online archives, bless them, have taught the masses the value of record images over “processed” information such as abstracts, transcripts, and indexes.

The latest wave, indisputably, is Genealogy as Social Networking. New sites promise to link the world—past, present, and future—into one wondrous tree. It is wondrous to see the robustness of the technology that makes this possible. But it’s frustrating to see the extent to which technology’s teaching role has regressed in this new forum.

Now, at The Gee-Whiz Tree, genealogy is perceived as entering whatever data you know (or think you know). After that you go do Facebook while The Great Gee-Whizzard finds cousins for you in his built-in database. (How does The Whizzard know your cousins? Easy. A cousin is somebody who has an ancestor of the same name in more-or-less the same place and time; and if both of your Ancestor Johns had a daughter Mary, that cinches it.) Naïve users are invited to ‘merge trees’ with no caution about the dangers of indiscriminate merging; and they’re chided by The Whizzard if they leave merge-requests unattended. (But,of course, The Whizzard calls them “merge issues” to ramp up the sense of guilt at not joining in on all the fun.)  Worse, too often, there no mechanism for undoing bad merges once somebody blithely clicks on the button that reads, “Sure, go ahead ‘cause I don’t know any better.”  Geeks who do know to look for such stuff can usually find a screen to attach an image or a website link. But mechanisms for identifying unimaged sources leave the impression that nobody but old-fogeys worry about source identification and evidence analysis. (Come on, Grandma! This is the new way to do genealogy! Get with it!)

So, to answer your question from the 30-year perspective: technology is St. Genie’s gift to our generation. But, some days, it’s also like looking in a mirror and seeing, in front of you, the up-slope of the hill you’ve just climbed.

* * *

Disclosure statement: I was contacted by Genealogical Publishing Co. via mail to review the Quicksheet – Citing Online African-American Historical Resources and a complimentary copy was delivered to me. After reviewing the product, I will giving the quicksheet away in a contest here at GeneaBloggers.  To review the other material connections I have with genealogy vendors, please see Disclosure Statements.

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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16 thoughts on “Interview – Elizabeth Shown Mills

  1. Dude. That was awesome.

    You hardly ever see interviews where the interviewee’s real personality comes through. Here you can see her coolness AND her genealogy brain. Love it!

  2. Thank you for sharing your email interview with ESM. Every time I reread her words about source citations, the details sink in a little bit deeper and become a little bit easier to understand.

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