A Philosophy of Citation?

This semester I’m teaching the department’s sophomore-level research methods course, and it’s been quite an education for me. Working through a course like this where I work with students explicitly on the craft of the historian is forcing me to rethink, defend, and make transparent the very practices that make up the craft. For most of our careers, we simply take for granted or assume that our ways of approaching materials are both right and effective. That’s fine (if you think too hard about using Chicago style footnotes you’ll just give yourself a headache), but it doesn’t work for students approaching the discipline for the first time above the level of a survey course.

During the first few weeks, students have been compiling bibliographies of primary and secondary source materials for their projects, and I’ve been nudging them to conform their entries more closely with the Chicago Manual of Style on a case-by-case basis. But tomorrow we have a full class session devoted to documentation, which gives us an opportunity to think structurally about what CMS asks for in citations and why. And that’s where the trouble began.

No one, you see, offers an explanation of why we document our sources the way that we do. The CMS offers a justification for why we cite in the first place, relating it to “ethics, copyright laws, and courtesy to readers.” But there’s no justification offered for why we include the information that we do as compared to MLA, APA, or other citation formats. I checked Turabian, Mary Lynn Rampolla’s A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, which is our guidebook for the semester, and a few other guides to history writing — all of them came up dry.

My next step was to consult the hivemind, so I posted to Twitter:

That brought back one response that made some sense, but still didn’t suggest a philosophy of citation:

I do have a standard spiel for what I tell students about why we use Chicago style and other disciplines don’t, and I offer two reasons:

  1. Every discipline came up with its citation practices on its own — historians didn’t talk to literary scholars or sociologists or political scientists about what would work for everybody. Instead, each discipline, writing mostly in its own professional journals to an audience of specialists, developed a system that worked well for that field.
  2. Historians care about a slightly different set of information than other scholars, and here I usually make reference to MLA style, with which my students are most familiar (parentheses!). In an English paper, I remind them, one might cite the same text (I usually propose a Dickens novel or a Shakespeare play) thirty or forty times in a ten-page paper. Having a parenthetical makes the paper easier to read, and all you really need to know in order to follow someone’s work is by including a single citation to the full publication at the end so the reader knows which edition was used. But historians might use thirty or forty different sources, and we want to see those sources at the point of citation with the fullest information possible (rather than looking back to a “Works Cited” page or a bibliography). In those cases, the footnotes make more sense.

But I don’t really know how well that would hold up under scrutiny, and it is, if I may self-deprecate, rather paltry for a citation philosophy. We have our class session tomorrow, so we’ll see what happens there, but I would be curious if any other historians out there have encountered or developed a way of explaining such a philosophy.


  1. Great points for discussion!

    I think one could elaborate on your point 2: Chicago has a presumption in favor of narrative. A footnote is a way of putting the evidence to one side so as not to interrupt. It can accommodate not only many different kinds of sources in one note but also much longer blocks of text — in which one cites, elaborates, justifies, analyzes, etc. Basically, a Chicago-style footnote is good for anything that is extraneous to your narrative, whether or not it’s extraneous to your argumentation.

    By contrast, parenthetical-friendly styles generally assume citations are for either literature review or for close reading (or both). Author-date styles are better for lit review, author-page for close reading, but both assume that the heavy lifting of analyzing evidence is going to happen in the main body of text.

    Beyond Chicago’s built-in preference for footnotes, I think avoiding an author-based citation method also means it doesn’t assume a source is valuable because it’s been published and recognized already. Chicago is friendly to fragments and traces.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.