Thursday, February 28, 2013


(Author’s note: I’d like to thank +Ed Thompson  and +Pat Richley-Erickson  for providing the impetus for this post.)
A recent discussion on report writing style touched on what I felt was an interesting topic: whether a genealogical report should use footnotes versus endnotes.

Being educated as an ancillary medical professional I was trained to use the APA (American Psychological Association) Style of writing. APA is a logical choice in the case of writings regarding the social sciences: citations are made in the body of the paper, allowing the reader to immediately move to the referenced material, online or on-hand. A separate page lists this resources. The AMA Style is used similarly for medical journals and reports. These styles work wonderfully for scholarly articles and research papers – the information is rarely taken out of context; such reports are frequently used as references in their entirety in future research.

The MLA (Modern Language Association) is used by humanities and social sciences. It also includes citations in the body of the report with a “works cited”page at the end. Such papers generally aren’t concerned with allowing the reader to quickly access the referenced data; the works cited page is built to give credit where credit is due and as an assurance against plagiarism.

So, why would it be any different for genealogy? Why would the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) recommend that projects submitted to them be written following the Chicago Style? Consistency is certainly one reason – but why, specifically, Chicago Style? While I can’t speak to their purpose, I can think of a very good reason.

Genealogical reports are typically written for the layperson.
Think about why someone would read a genealogical compilation: They are looking in that book for a specific reason; usually to locate information about their direct line ancestors. With the advent of hand held scanners, Smartphones, and pocket sized digital cameras, readers no longer feel the need to own a hard copy of a difficult to locate book on their family history. As pointed out by Dear Myrtle in a recent Google Hangout, instead they can just snap a picture of a page at a local library and move on to the next ancestor.

Unfortunately, once that digitization occurs the credibility of the claim made in that book crumbles – because the claim no longer has a sound source. This is where the Chicago style comes in to play.

The Chicago Style uses footnotes: each citation is right there on the same page with the referring source. And while many genealogical reports are written in a narrative style, often times they are in chart form (or at least include a chart). Using footnotes in a narrative report can certainly impede the flow of a good narrative – but the effect is minimized in a non-narrative or mixed report.

An independent genealogist – both the hobbyist and professional – has the luxury to choose a preferred writing style. But when writing with the intent of publication this certainly gives a reason to look beyond preference and our current knowledge base. Learning a new writing style can be a tedious, and sometimes daunting, task – but using the right report style for the job can has an impact beyond readability and personal preference.

I certainly don’t expect anything I write to be read 100 years from now. But in the case that it is I want to know that I am making my work easy to duplicate by my ancestors – one source at a time.


  1. Kristen,

    Thank you for posting this, as follow up to the Google+ Hangout On Air with Dear MYRTLE.

    My comments are these: Will the document / report be printed? and Who is the audience for that document or report.

    I think the main point last night was, that we, users of Evidentia be given the choice for Footnotes or Endnotes. But my two questions remain.

    When I have generated genealogy reports, charts, and a couple of locally printed books, I have a statement at the beginning of the book, or in a cover letter for the report, that Citations are available upon request. In a book, I do include a bibliography.

    Now, my "audience" has been family. But, I have yet to get a request for a report with Endnotes, which is what my genealogy software program provides. The family either trusts me, as they have seen other work, don't care, or haven't read what I have provided. So, for me, it's a matter of "saving trees". I am always willing to print a completely documented report.

    You blog post was very informative to me. I must admit that I am not a scholar, so it doesn't matter to me (endnotes or footnotes), but with your help, I can see the reason for the use of Footnotes.

    Thank you,


    1. I agree, Russ - report format can vary widely based on the audience of the report. The things I write for my family currently don't generally have sources - I have all my sources saved in a file based on last name (secured onsite and offsite!), and they know they are welcome to make a copy. But when I am "finished", when my final page has been typed, it will definitely be well-documented (probably with more information than anyone really wanted to know!)

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Is there a difference though, between citations and other kinds of footnotes?

    For instance, some of the old genealogies I read have clarifying footnotes (but no citations unfortunately). Now I admit that Mr Endnote here LIKES easy access to those clarifying footnotes on the same page.

    But citations? I really don't need them unless I want follow up on a source.

    Is there a difference?


    1. Three reasons to provide a "note" in a document come to mind - 1) to provide explanation for a statement or conclusion, 2) to provide additional or commentary information to the reader that may not be germane to the writing or 3) to document the source of the information and add credibility to the statement or claim.

      Why there is a "note" isn't as important as how they are formatted.

      These notes can then be placed in one of several formats - endnote, footnote, and in-text citations are the ones I'm familiar with. They can serve whatever purpose the writer needs them to.

      In the case of genealogical writings, it doesn't make much sense to use in-text citations - those usually refer the reader back to a bibliography or works cited page; since most of our work comes from myriad and various records we don't really have use for a compiled list of books or journals (although there are of course times we do - they're just not extensive).

      Bottom line: Which of these formats works best for any given paper and any given audience? That's up to the writer to decide - he knows his intended audience, so he needs to decide what would work best in each case.

      I do know that most genealogical writings that are published on the journal level are done using footnotes and using the Chicago style. I don't know, however, if this is a requirement in most journals or just a recommendation.

      To connect back to the topic of that night: It seems to me that a software developer would be best served by offering the broadest range of options to the consumer. However, I don't develop software - I can barely handle a nested IF statement, even with a year of computer programming under my belt (okay, so it was community college level!) - so I have no idea how plausible providing multiple options is.

    2. Sheesh, that reply was almost as long as the original post. Sorry!