Referencing for Genealogists: Sources and Citation by Ian G. Macdonald – A Book Review

While looking online for another book, I stumbled upon a pre-publication notice for Referencing for Genealogists: Sources and Citation by Ian G. Macdonald. It went on sale just last month.

I surmised that this little manual would focus on citing UK-based genealogical resources and, for the most part, that is what it does. However, Macdonald’s book is definitely not in an Evidence Explained-type format, whereby one looks up the type of record for citation examples. There is actually a fair amount of related text in this book.

Although only containing 144 pages, there are 18 chapters in this book and the chapter topics aren’t always quickly identifiable to American readers. I’ve added some commentary to those that aren’t:

1. Introduction – covers definitions or primary and secondary sources, why citations are important and when they need to be used. I like that one section is devoted to plagiarism. One other section of the introduction was interesting, as there are a couple of paragraphs devoted to the Board for Certification of Genealogists’ concept of the Genealogical Proof Standard, identified as “not much seen outside their circle” and criteria for its success is called “unclear.”
2. The Materials We Use and the Places We Find Them
3. Creating Individual References: Principles
4. The ‘Harvard’ Style – This chapter discusses MLA and APA citation styles, as well as Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained. Macdonald describes the Evidence Explained  style as “more prescriptive than European taste typically prefers” and that she “eschews generic approaches and specifies a way of creating a reference for almost every imaginable source. . .making it difficult to use and that some would describe as an exercise in pedantry. . . though. . . it is a classic.”
5. Using Our ‘Harvard’ Style in the Digital Age
6. Using ‘Harvard’ Style for Secondary Sources
7. Cloud Sourcing
8. Referencing for Genealogical and Archival Sources – defines nominal, material and procedural records
9. Nominal Records – having to do with people
10. Material Records – having to do with things
11. Procedural Records – having to do with procedures that enhance smooth running of society and businesses
12. Other Primary Records: Guidelines
13. Images
14. Maps
15. Using the Referencing Principles in Your Own Writing
16. Working with Software
17. Future Citation – touches on social media, DNA analyses and newly created types of records
18. Endpoint: Or a New Beginning

This book is mainly aimed at the UK audience and it’s an interesting read. I noticed that while Macdonald mildly knocks the 800-page Evidence Explained (which is thoroughly indexed so that citation examples for a multitude of record types can easily be found) as being somewhat overwhelming and unwieldy, Elizabeth Shown Mills’ citation formats pretty much match the format given in his own examples. The main difference between them is that Macdonald’s examples all use UK records.

Would I recommend this book for American genealogists? Well, maybe. It’s available, new, on Amazon for as little as $18.

Referencing for Genealogists isn’t going to replace Evidence Explained as the classic go-to volume. However, if you frequently use UK genealogical resources and would like examples of strong citations of some of those unique records, then this book is an inexpensive guide to keep handy on your bookshelf.

Having said that, I am not particularly obsessed with having every comma or colon in the right spot in my own source citations. While I follow basic bibliographic principles, my belief is that if I include enough detail in those citations that everyone else is able to locate them, I’m not particularly bothered if a bit of info in it is considered in the wrong order by someone else.

If you are a stickler for detail and want to be sure to correctly cite your UK sources correctly, then $18 is well spent. If you already own Evidence Explained and find an example that is close to your UK source and are happy to use that format, save your dollars for some other purchase.




4 thoughts on “Referencing for Genealogists: Sources and Citation by Ian G. Macdonald – A Book Review”

  1. Hi Linda,

    I will offer a different perspective on this book. Granted, the majority of my research is done with European sources, so clearly my mileage will differ.

    I’ve had this book for almost a month and it’s been a huge revelation for me. There’s so much in this slim volume that has helped me with citation, I can’t believe it. He goes into theory and provides some great examples as well as structures to follow for citing different types of sources.

    Now I’m using a kind of mash of his method and ESM’s – it’s so much easier now, I can’t believe it. For people who are happy with EE, I’d say you can ignore this book, but if you have doubts or problems following the EE method, I recommend this book as it approaches genealogy reference in a different way.

    I don’t think either book is THE one – many might discover, as I have, that between the two authors, they have created a good base for those who have a wide variety of sources they need to cite. From both, you can build your own referencing system.

    Of course, if you’re a professional genealogist in North America working for North Americans, or writing for North American journals, you’ll want to stick with EE as it’s become the standard, but others might find dipping into Macdonald’s book to be very helpful.

  2. Hello Linda;

    I’ve been working my way through Ian G. MacDonalds book and comparing the Strathclyde style citations with the Evidence Explained style ones. I’m relatively familiar with the latter. I’m finding that, in Mr. MacDonald’s book, the examples don’t typically employ all the stylistic elements that they could and so may give a misleading impression. When those extra elements are implemented, one gets a citation that is pretty close to an EE-style citation. The biggest difference for me is that the EE-style focuses quite a bit on punctuation and structure, while Mr. MacDonald’s book (Strathclyde style) focusses more on the information content. In fact; I think that one could likely take one style and generate the other, as the needed information typically seems to be present.

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