What is “Context” Anyway?

Context of the source, context of the citation, and context of its reader should all inform the decisions we have to make while crafting a citation. Different contexts will lead to different decisions about what to include and how to format the elements of the citation. — Tom Jones, email to the author, 31 December 2013. [1]

Citation is an art, not a science. — Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained, p. 41.

What?  Dr. Jones speaks of “crafting” a citation and Ms. Mills describes it as an art!  In my genealogical infancy, I confidently looked up the type of source in a style manual, found a suitable template and filled in the blanks–no need to read all that text!  Now, Dr. Jones and Ms. Mills challenge us to thoughtfully create citations that are responsive to the text and regard the reader–the context.  But, this word “context” still has me puzzled.

I thought “context” was the sociological or historical or political environment within which we make decisions.  How can a source or a citation or the reader have a context?  What is “context” anyway?

Let’s start with the Oxford English Dictionary:

Root of the word: “Latin contextus (u-stem) connection, < participial stem of contexĕre to weave together, connect. (author’s emphasis)”
[2]  I love that!  Weave together–how beautiful!
Definition (noun): “The weaving together of words and sentences; construction of speech, literary composition”

So what are we actually weaving?

In 1425, a Middle English writer combined the word “context” with “historical.”[3]  Today, genealogists are also introduced to the phrase “historical context.”  For example, the decision by Ulysses Grant to stop the exchange of Union and Confederate prisoners confined many individuals in Civil War prisons. More contemporaneously, the decision by the US Congress to reduce spending on research can negatively impact the numbers of young investigators entering the field.  A soldier kept in prison for months may become sickly for the rest of his life; a promising student may decide to enter the familial business rather than have a life in research.  These are real world individual decisions that are affected by the decisions of politics and history.  The individual decision is inextricably tied to the macro event–tightly woven together.

So, how does this apply to citations?

In Evidence Explained, Elizabeth Shown Mills has three references to “context”– cemeteries  and censuses and their physical context of the neighbors and the differences of the context of the original church record as opposed to that of a certificate of marriage. We may be able to obtain the certificate but a review of the original church entries may include information that wasn’t included on the certificate and reveal information about the recorder (e.g. shakey handwriting, level of literacy) which lead us to conclusions about the quality of the source. She covers the issue of context of the citation without a direct use of the word in Section 2.1 Art vs. Science. [3]

Let’s look at a relatively simple example–the blog– to illustrate how the context of the item being cited can drive the format of the citation.

If the context of the information that is being cited concerns a specific posting, the citation, according to EE, might look like this:
“What is Context Anyway?” Jill Morelli Weblog: Genealogy Certification: A Personal Journey, 11 February 2014 ( http://genealogycertification.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/what-is-context-anyway/ : accessed 11 February 2014).

If the information that is being cited is focused instead on the blog as a whole, the citation might look like this:
Jill Morelli Weblog: Genealogy Certification: a Personal Journey, 2011-2014, http://genealogycertification.wordpress.org. [6]

If the information or the article is focused on the author, the citation might look like this:
Jill Morelli, “What is Context Anyway?” Genealogy Certification: A Personal Journey, 11 February 2014 (http://genealogycertification.wordpress.com : accessed 11 February 2014).

We can look to the templates provided but ultimately we must think about what are we citing, why are are citing it and what impression do we want to leave with the reader.  Thus, the development of the citation is one of mindfulness of the source, the narrative, the reader and the citation.

Happy Weaving!


What I have done since the last posting: worked on the SGS newsletter and getting it ready for publication.  The feature article is about the Spring Seminar featuring Jeanne Larzalerle Bloom.  I met Jeanne at the APG Professional Management Conference prior to SLIG and interviewed her.  It should be a good issue. Continued to work on the ProGen assignment–a genealogical proof argument.  My topic is the Irish village of birth of Mary Coyne.  The client provided me with many family traditions related to their location from which the family emigrated but I am writing a proof argument without the use of any of the clues provided.

[1] Tom Jones [(e-address for private use)] to Jill Morelli, e-mail, 31 December 2013, “blog posting comparing article with EE citation templates,” digitally filed, Blog file; privately held by Morelli, [(e-address) & street address for private use], Seattle, Washington, 2013. cited in blog posting “GPS Element #2: Informative Citations,”,
[2]  OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. (http://www.oed.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/view/Entry/40207?rskey=7EGr1F&result=1 : accessed 9 February 2014).
[3] The OED cites the first usage in 1425, “In the contexte historicalle….” Almost 600 years later, we, as genealogists, use the word similarly.
[4] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007). For blog postings, see 811-813; for cemeteries, see 229; for censuses, see 260; and for church records, see 340.
[5] As our internet vocabulary matures, I believe the word “weblog” has evolved to “blog.”  I would suggest handling the word “blog” similar to the word “digital image” or “database”.  This might the citation looking like: Jill Morelli, “What is Context Anyway?” Genealogy Certification: A Personal Journey, 10 February 2014, blog (http://genealogycertification.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/what-is-context-anyway/ : accessed 11 February 2014).

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One comment on “What is “Context” Anyway?

  1. […] was used, the citation described the database and not a specific image.  In my recent blog about “What is Context Anyway?,” citations have to be responsive to what is being cited.  In some cases the “short […]

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