How Do You Handle URLs in Citations?

CMOSWe had a discussion in our ProGen class about how much to include of the URL of a website in a citation.  There were a variety of opinions and so I went searching for an answer.  The uniform resource locator or URL is the series of numbers and letters that forms the web address.  It appears in your browser window and begins with http://.  Sometimes it is very short but sometimes it is very long.

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The options discussed were:

  1. Use a TinyURL.  (If you are not familiar with TinyURLs check them out here.)
  2. Use only the homepage URL (e.g. http://ancestry.com) and
  3. Use the entire URL address.

Here is what I found.

Option #1: TinyURLs
Citation for this blog using a TinyURL:
Jill Morelli, “How Do You Handle URLs in Citations?” Genealogy Certification: A Personal Journey, 7 March 2014 (http://tinyurl.com/kmj9esc : accessed 7 March 2014).

TinyURLs take a long web address (URL) and turns it into a small one.  For example, the Permalink for this posting is http://genealogycertification.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/urls/.  I shortened it to http://tinyurl.com/kmj9esc  by using going to the TinyURL website and putting in the longer web address into the field and the site generated a unique but shorter address.  The address for this blog is not particularly long but compare that address with this citation for an image at Ancestry.com:

http://interactive.ancestrylibrary.com/6061/4313240-00013/45732503?backurl=http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ancestrylibrary.com%2fcgi-bin%2fsse.dll%3fdb%3d1920usfedcen%26rank%3d1%26new%3d1%26so%3d3%26MSAV%3d0%26msT%3d1%26gss%3dms_r_db%26gsfn%3ddaniel%26gsln%3ddoherty%26msbdy%3d1895%26msbpn__ftp%3direland%26msrpn__ftp%3dMontana%252c%2bUSA%26msrpn%3d29%26msrpn_PInfo%3d5-%257c0%257c1652393%257c0%257c2%257c3248%257c29%257c0%257c0%257c0%257c0%257c%26dbOnly%3d_83004006%257c_83004006_x%26dbOnly%3d_83004005%257c_83004005_x%26uidh%3d763&ssrc=&backlabel=ReturnSearchResults

Include the citation information around this link and you end up with six to eight lines for every footnote, sometimes consuming half of the page.

Why not use a TinyURL if you only wish to locate the source in the future–that works, doesn’t it?  No, it doesn’t.  What if the link is broken?  What clues are you or the reader given to enable you to find the source again?  The TinyUrL gives no clue as to which source you consulted to obtain the information.  However, the long URL in the example above has embedded within it the site name of ancestry and information about the type of record and the name of the individual of interest.

Tom Jones, in his book, Mastering Genealogical Proof doesn’t even mention ease of retrieval as a reason to cite your sources.  Instead, he describes citations as indicative of an exhaustive search and our use of “least error-prone sources” and to document our findings. [1]  But if the citation uses a TinyURL, how can you determine if you have done a thorough search?  You have no idea if the author cited Wikipedia or a peer reviewed journal article. You also are hampered in predicting the probability of error. The use of a TinyURL also does not assist in documenting findings.

I do not recommend using a TinyUrl in any citations you are writing.

Option #2: use of only the homepage URL
Citation for this blog using only the homepage URL:
Jill Morelli, “How Do You Handle URLs in Citations?” Genealogy Certification: A Personal Journey, 7 March 2014 ( http://genealogycertification.wordpress.com : accessed 7 March 2014), searched for citations & case study.

Elizabeth Shown Mills in her book, Evidence Explained, discusses web addresses (URLs) in section 2.37, page 59. [2]  Her assertion is that long URLs are subject to change  more easily thanthe  shorter homepage address and may not link correctly at a later date.  We all have encountered the ERROR 404 on a broken link.  Broken links are not uncommon even in the most cared for site.

Ms. Mills proposes that we use the address of the home page but include any additional descriptors for finding the particular item cited.  You can see in the example for this web site the search criteria of “citations & case study.” In a citation for a census image from http://ancestry.com, you might add “search for John Smith, Winchester County, Indiana.”  If using the homepage appraoch, Ms. Mills offers no guarantees as websites can still be rearranged, but even if the homepage changes it might be possible to locate the document in the future through the use of Internet Archive Wayback Machine. The use of the Wayback Machine is an option not available if a TinyURL is used.

Option #3: Use the entire URL
Citation for this blog using the full URL:
Jill Morelli, “How Do You Handle URLs in Citations?” Genealogy Certification: A Personal Journey, 7 March 2014 (http://genealogycertification.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/urls/ : accessed 7 March 2014).

In EE, Ms. Mills indicates the need to use the full address for journal articles and journals themselves.  She continues by saying that most style manuals use the full URL  [3]  I found it difficult to tell if she was only talking about Journal citations or it was a more global statement.  I analyzed each (yes, I really did!) of the QuickCheck Models in EE that pertained to online citations to try to discern a pattern of full URL vs. just the homepage URL.

Four observations:

  1. At no time did I find an example using a TinyURL.
  2. The full address was used more often, by a ratio of 2:1 (n=34,) than the homepage URL for citations that were related to online resources.
  3. In many, but not all, where the short address 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 form” was being used because…it would have been inappropriate to do anything else.
  4. but there were examples where Ancestry.com, for example, was cited using the homepage URL and the image was the focus.

I checked ESM’s EE web page (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/) and didn’t find any specific information on this topic, but you can read what I did find by going to this link: https://www.evidenceexplained.com/search/node/URL .  And, if you find a relevant article somewhere, please share!

The Chicago Manual of Style provides, to me at least, the answer:
“URL or DOI. [4]  Many of the examples in this section include a URL or a DOI at the end of the citation.  A DOI, if it is available, is preferable to a URL.  If using a URL, use the address that appears in your browser’s address bar when viewing the article unless a shorter, more stable form of the URL is offered along with the electronic article.”  [5]

Three observations seem now apparent:

  1. Whatever is decided, be consistent across types of citations.
  2. The BCG certification “fear factor” makes each applicant ultraconservative in writing citations, resulting in full URLs more prevalent (observation based on my reading of several BCG portfolios.)
  3. I need to think about the context of the citation.  If I am citing just the database or have a narrow site focus, use the homepage URL; otherwise…
  4. I will be using the long URL or DOI.

I would be interested in your thoughts, especially of those who are “on the clock” or already certified.

Happy Hunting!

Jill

What I have done since the last posting: spoke to the Eastside Home Economists’ Club on “Soldier, Spies & Farmwives: the Changing Roles of Women in the Civil War.”  It was well received;  computer was down for 1.5 weeks. I suffered from major withdrawal; worked on my draft no. 2 of my Proof Argument for ProGen;  tried to set up a time to meet with my business counselor but had to cancel;  encouraged a friend to consider running for Vice President of SGS;  worked on presentation of GPS Element #2 for SGS to be given on Sunday.  I hope some folks come–its DST!

[1] Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013), p. 7.

[2] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 2007), p. 59.

[3] Ibid, p. 799.

[4] DOI stands for Digital Object Identifier and is tied to the image, not to the website.  The link is extremely stable.

[5] University of Chicago, Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) section 14.184.

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14 comments on “How Do You Handle URLs in Citations?

  1. Rachelle says:

    Jill, this was such a useful discussion. I too have been struggling with what is the “right answer” for which url to use for citations. ex. an Ancestry census record – which would you use – the census record itself, the summary of the family prior to getting into the document, the particular year for census search in the card catalog (so you would just fill in details of the family) or just ancestry.com? While you did not provide a definitive answer, I am mollified that others are also trying to find it!

    • jkmorelli says:

      Rachelle, Glad you liked it. Every time I run into a “difference of opinion” I figure it deserves a little extra attention and that extra attention usually manifests itself as a blog posting. I have decided that the approach I am taking, as “ugly” as it is, will be to use the URL of the document itself. There are downsides which I find interesting….for example, Word does not like long citations nor does it like when 1/2 the page is citations. In fact, it wraps the citation to the next page rather than cutting the article short and moving the citation to the next page. I also have Pages on my MAC and I am going to see if it does the same thing with it. This is a known problem with Word and there are lots of work-arounds of which most are unacceptable to BCG, including reducing the font size of the document, forcing a page break and reducing the font size of the citations. Learn something new every day. Have a great weekend! Jill

  2. Rachel says:

    I use a link to the homepage with the name of the database in the master citation for the record type. I then add a shortened link directly to the image in the individual citation for each person. In the notes portion I put the search parameters I used to find it. That way if the link should ever change it can be found using the rest of the information in my citation.

    • jkmorelli says:

      Rachel, I am making an assumption here, tell me if I have it right/wrong…It sounds like you are describing how you use your computer software program to keep a record of your URLs and how you got there. It even sounds like you are using TMG, but that is just a guess. What you describe is a wonderful approach to recording what the URL was when you found it. And, more importantly, how you got there, which will be very useful if you find that the links don’t work any more. Terrific! I will have to see if this is something I can adapt to my software as well. Have a great weekend.
      Jill

      • Rachel says:

        Sorry about that. I should have explained it better. I actually use Family Tree Maker as my main program and Evernote for my research notes and logs. It works well with both programs.

      • jkmorelli says:

        no problem. It looks like you have a good system. I need to emulate it. I use TMG and have just not gotten comfortable with Evernote. I think it would be good but I am not there yet. Thanks for commenting. I always like hearing from readers.

  3. Margaret R. Fortier says:

    JIll, great topic. I am on the clock. I agree the Tiny URL is not an option. I can understand using the long URLs for the portfolio, ugly as they are. For client reports I use a short URL (which I can make an active link) as well as including a copy of the image. I think the DOI is also appropriate in many cases.

    Thank you for doing the EE analysis. How long was the longest ‘long’ URL?

    • jkmorelli says:

      Margaret,
      Congratulations! I am soon-to-be “on the clock” as soon as online access to a unique database is possible (or at least that is my excuse d’jour!) The option of using a TinyURL came up as an acceptable (?) option at the BU genealogy course, and there are individuals who firmly believe it is a good option.

      What happens when you need to pick a client report for your portfolio that has short URLs? I am glad that CMOS mentions the DOI as equal if not better than the long link. The trouble with the DOI is that you lose the context of the website (I think–I should check that.) Hope all is well with you. See you in Richmond?
      Jill

  4. When citing a document found on Ancestry (or another site with a large collection of different databases and record types) I include the URL of the specific database, but not the URL of the specific image, e.g. if citing an entry from the 1930 US Census I would give the URL http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=6224 rather than http://www.ancestry.com. This keeps the URL reasonably short whilst also directing the reader to exactly which database the document was found in. Hopefully the rest of the citation contains enough information for them to then be able to locate the image!

    • jkmorelli says:

      Kirsty, thanks for commenting! Do you then include your search parameters at the end of the citation? Are you “on the clock?” Jill

      • No, I don’t include my search parameters, as I think the citation already contains enough information to locate the source.

        No, I’m not “on the clock” but it’s something I may consider in the next few years, so I’m interested to hear how others do it. Best of luck with your application, Jill!

      • jkmorelli says:

        Thanks, Kirsty. I appreciate the response. Thanks also for your support and continued readership of my blog. I will let you know when I apply. (WordPress allows me to include a countdown clock on the website–I am trying to decide if that would build tension or be a fun thing to do!)
        have a great day.
        Jill

  5. I use the URL of the main page such as http://www.ancestry.com.

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