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.