It's Not Just about Giving Credit Where Due


18 August 2014

It happens so often. A researcher cites a census—typically accessed online, these days—but does not cite the online provider. Does it matter?

No. Say some. A census is a census, is a census.

Of course not. Say others. When I go to a library I don't cite the library. I cite what I used.

Umhh. Says EE. False equivalent! Please reconsider!

If we use a book or microfilm at a library, our citation would identify the publisher—or the producer of the film if it was made for preservation purposes rather than publication. We identify that publisher or producer for two reasons: (1) to give credit where due; and (2) because the quality of filming differs from one publisher/producer to another.

When we use online providers, the same need exists. These providers are not libraries. They are publishers. In the process of publishing, they make alterations to the material they publish. With censuses, they not only create and publish abstracts that we access through their databases, but they also digitally process the images on the film they have acquired from Whoever. That processing often includes enhancements to make pages more readable than the film itself. That processing also creates a fair number of problems, such as missing pages or a mislabeled division of a census district. From one provider to the next, we'll find seriously different search engines and indexes.

All of this means that census research consulted at Provider ABC may not produce the same results as those we get with Provider XYZ.

Ergo: because each online publisher does its own processing, makes its own enhancements, and creates its own errors, we should always identify which publisher we have used.


P.S. EE's census chapter gives abundant examples for the major providers. Indeed, every chapter offers those citations for virtually every type of historical record we use. If you're uncertain as to how websites are cited, EE has templates and discussions to explain them.