Book Review: “Referencing for Genealogists”

In the book that is the subject of today’s review, Referencing for Genealogists: Sources and Citation, Ian G. MacDonald throws his hat into the genealogy referencing ring. While standing alone as the book’s author, MacDonald writes on behalf of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, which has collectively developed the style laid out in the book while teaching graduate courses in genealogy.

Understandably, genealogists have long made attempts at improving their referencing by investing in a copy of the revered reference guide Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills. It is equally understandable that many of these well-intentioned genealogists have quickly thrown up their hands, overwhelmed and confused by the process of producing quality references for their research. I can say this because I count myself among their number.

I am here to tell you, that MacDonald’s book is a life preserver thrown to those who are drowning in a sea of source material. At only 144 pages, it’s a manageable length to read over a few days, and that’s exactly how I recommend approaching this book. This is not a reference manual, it’s a lesson. Read it cover-to-cover the first time and you’ll quickly see that, despite lists of citation elements included in each section, the citation structure is nearly unchanging throughout. The heavy use of repetition serves not to overwhelm you, but to help you internalize the structure of the citation while you read. By the end of the book I felt ready to sit down at my computer and start crafting citations without needing to reference the book. That tells me that this is a style of referencing that could really move mountains to improve the quality of my documentation efforts.

MacDonald begins the book with an overview of genealogy sources, the value of quality references and a review of popular style guides. The following chapters tackle secondary sources and the three broad categories of primary source records: nominal, material, and procedural, with explanations and examples throughout. He concludes with some brief words on unusual source categories, how to incorporate references into writing and a nod to the future of source material.

Keep in mind that Referencing for Genealogists comes from an unapologetically British perspective with noticeably few examples of American sources. Readers who work primarily with non-British sources will need to take an extra step to adapt the examples to their own research materials. There is no doubt that this work will be worth the trouble when you are able to whip up a quality source citation without referencing a dense manual.

To compare MacDonald’s citation style with that of Mills in Evidence Explained, I have created two sample citations for the same record of my ancestor, James Emlen, in the 1820 census:

Ian G. MacDonald:

Census returns. USA. Middletown Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. 07 Aug 1820. EMLEN, James. Page 45, NARA Roll M33_103. Collection: 1820 United States Federal Census.

Elizabeth Shown Mills:

1820 U.S. census, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Middletown Township, p. 45, line 3, James Emlen; digital image, ( : accessed 28 July 2018); citing National Archives microfilm publication M33, roll 103.

While both of these citations accomplish the task of pointing a reader to a specific entry in a record, the two approaches are markedly different. I appreciate the brevity of MacDonald’s style and that similar information is grouped together in the citation. In the second style, place information is split around the words “population schedule,” and the directional information, such as film and page numbers are also separated.

My only criticism of Referencing for Genealogists is an uncomfortable inattention to sentence spacing throughout. It is difficult to tell if a formatting error or a poor choice of font is to blame, but many times there appear to be no spaces between a period and the following sentence. In this book, however, the problem is easy to overlook.

Although I have not yet had an opportunity to apply this new citation style across my existing genealogy research, beyond constructing some practice citations, I am looking forward to using this book to clean up research. It will just take some time to develop new citation templates in RootsMagic, but I know my results will be better for it.

If you have found yourself trying and failing to adopt good referencing habits in your day-to-day research, I would recommend picking up Referencing for Genealogists. I hope you will find it as encouraging and educational as I have!

Books Mentioned in this Post:

MacDonald, Ian G. 2018. Referencing for Genealogists: Sources and Citation. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. 2017. Evidence Explained: Citing Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Third edition, revised. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: “Referencing for Genealogists”

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  1. Thank you for this review. I had not heard of this book before, and I appreciate having it brought to my attention. I try to keep my citations briefer than the models in Evidence Explained, for the same reason that journal editors do: space. I would like for my readers (including myself in the future) to see in one or two lines how they can find my source. I don’t think I’d arrange mine just the same way that Mr. MacDonald does, but I appreciate being offered an alternative.

  2. I love this book as well! As I also like some aspects of Evidence Explained, I’ve now come up with a citation format that combines the best of these two books – I’d love to see your RootsMagic templates when they’re done 🙂 I might have a go at creating one myself as well…

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