A quick note on referencing

I'm slowly working my way through the Hand-book of Hartwell Genealogy, 1636-1887, this week adding a ton of information to my database and realized there's something that you might not know.  It has to do with citing Wikipedia as a source.

There are many relations in the Hartwell book that have references to specific battles of the American Civil War without giving the dates or exact locations of the battles.  Rather than just list that "so-and-so was in Foo battle," I'm taking a quick look at the information on Wikipedia to find the dates and locations for the battles so the information sorts into correct chronological order in my database.  For example, I just added a fact for Dr. Oliver Bemis; the book says that he served in the battle of Wilderness (among others, including Lee's surrender), but doesn't give any details on the battle. 

Wikipedia's page on the Battle of the Wilderness gives me the dates of the battle and the location.  The important piece of the source citation here is that I don't use the link to the article as just stated.  Instead, I click on the text "Permanent link" in the left column of the Wikipedia page.  This takes me to a page for the exact version of the article that I'm looking at, in this case it takes me to http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Battle_of_the_Wilderness&oldid=388590330.  Sure, it's an uglier URL, but it is the correct URL to use in my source citation because it will show other researchers exactly what I was able to read when I used the page as a source in my research.  Here's a screenshot of how I enter the source information into Roots Magic (click on the image for a full-size view):

Wikipedia has a page about citing Wikipedia articles in other research at Wikipedia:Citing Wikipedia.  As you can see from the footnote text to the right of this screenshot, using the permanent link results in a citation that looks very similar to the way that Wikipedia recommends showing a source citation.

Yes, I know that Wikipedia is not a primary source of any information.  Heck, I'm an admin there, so I have a little more experience on how Wikipedia works than many other family historians.  But, I also know that the editors who spend their time adding information to Wikipedia articles work very hard to ensure that the data is accurate, well-referenced and free of vandalism.  The military history WikiProject in particular has paid extra attention to ensuring accuracy and referencing of articles related to military topics, so I have some assurance that the data is correct.  It is the fact that Wikipedia articles can change frequently that means I need to use the permanent link to a specific article version, and it is the fact that Wikipedia is not a primary source that I need to continue researching to independently verify the data that I do use from Wikipedia articles.


chaplainandrews said...

Very good article.
I think Wikipedia provides a lot of information at your finger tips. much of is brief--which is excellent for genealogical reference.

DianaR said...

Thanks so much for this post! I never really thought about using a source like Wikipedia to add specific data around events. Great idea.