ColeValleyGirl proposed the question:

Citation guides for family history and genealogy

Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Revised edition. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009.) is a citation guide widely used by genealogists and family historians. Are there any other citation guides in use, or is this the de facto standard in the field?

Even though this is very much the sort of information genealogists want to know, this to me was very much a "list" question which is not the sort desired for the expert questions and answers desired on Stack Exchange sites.

ColeValleyGirl and I started discussing this in the comments for the question, but the discussion was getting so long, I thought it best to move it here to meta, and allow others to express their opinions.

Here was the discussion to date:

Your question asks for an open-ended list of citation guides and comparing and contrasting them all, which makes it not a good question. The FAQ says "chatty, open-ended questions diminishes the usefulness of our site". I'd recommend you make your question much more specific. What is the problem you are trying to solve? – lkessler 2 days ago

Might this question, @lkessler, be acceptable if the question were rewritten as, "What are style guides (for citations)? Is there a standard guide for genealogy and family history?" My thought it that the revised question can be answered and it will probably result in answers that provide the same information ColeValleyGirl is seeking. – GeneJ 2 days ago

@lkessler Was the question acceptable before I added the second part asking for pros and cons? It seems to me that the first part isn't open-ended, and is exactly what I need to know: what else is out there besides Evidence Explained? – ColeValleyGirl 2 days ago

@ColeValleyGirl - Better without the pros and cons. But there are actually dozens (if not more) citation guides in use. If every answer listed one, you'd have a list of the type they don't want. I interpret that what you really want to know is whether or not you should be using Shown Mills as your citation guide. – lkessler yesterday

@lkessler, no, I don't want to be told whether I should be using Shown Mills. I want to know if there are alternatives I could explore. – ColeValleyGirl yesterday

@ColeValleyGirl - Then in that case, it's not an appropriate question for the Q&A. There are plenty of other places you can get lists of alternatives. To make it a valid question, you have to have a problem you're trying to solve. Why do you need to know of alternatives? What is it that Shown Mills is not allowing you to do? What do you find missing from Shown Mills. Those are more appropriate questions meant for experts, and people will answer and if appropriate, suggest another guide that solves your particular problem. – lkessler 16 hours ago

@lkessler Thanks for working with me on this. If it's not appropriate to ask for a list of Citation Style Guides specifically for Family Historian/Genealogy , is it appropriate to ask where I could find a list. Because I've looked, and the answer is always: Evidence Explained. Which is a fine guide if you're dealing primarily with US sources, but still leaves a lot of work to do if you're applying it to English and Welsh sources, for example. – ColeValleyGirl 11 hours ago

As she says above in one of her comments, what she really wants to know is: "What else is out there beside Evidence Explained?"

So my question to everyone, on behalf of ColeValleyGirl, is how does she rephrase her question so that it is expressed in a way that is to solve a problem she faces that an expert can answer and won't result in just an open-ended list of citation guides?

(Do, however, take note of the fact that ACProctor gave an excellent answer to the question, almost as if it was rephrased to solve ColeValleyGirl's problem.)

6 Answers 6


There are two related discussions, How to handle Resource Lists type of questions and How can we word the FAQs to make clear the site policy on list questions?, where the consensus seems to be that questions asking for a list are really not a good fit.

In general, that's the guideline on most Stack Exchange sites.

However, if the problem is that you're reference material isn't solving your problem, and you know that there should reasonably be something else out there for different locales, then perhaps it may not be a bad idea to pose that as a question, as long as you indicate why the current materials aren't solving your problem.

In general, the type of list questions we try to avoid are those without any context:

  • What is your favorite Genealogy site?

  • What is the best citation guide?

  • List all sites where I can find information on X?

These are bad because they'll just get a lot of answers that don't teach anyone anything, and more than likely, they'll just attract spam

However, looking deeper at ColeValleyGirl's post, it's clear that the original question itself doesn't tell us much. I see a justification for leaving a comment asking for clarification.

But here is where I see hope in this comment from ColeValleyGirl:

... I've looked, and the answer is always: Evidence Explained. Which is a fine guide if you're dealing primarily with US sources, but still leaves a lot of work to do if you're applying it to English and Welsh sources, for example. – ColeValleyGirl 11 hours ago

IMHO, this is critical information. Now we have some focus. We know why the current reference material isn't working, and we can now provide an answer that is more likely to solve an actual problem.

I went ahead and made a suggested edit. Someone with 500+ reputation would need to review it, if ColeValleyGirl doesn't get there first. Hope this helps!

Here is a good takeaway from this experience: Ask for clarification on questions with missing context. If the original poster clarifies in the comments, add that information to the actual question, or ask the op to do so. :)

  • 1
    I've accepted the edit, slightly modified. Thanks, @jmort253
    – user104
    Oct 14, 2012 at 8:18
  • @jmort253 - Your "Ask for clarification on questions with missing contexts" should be included in our FAQ when it gets finalized. +1
    – lkessler
    Oct 14, 2012 at 18:54

While I see the value in adding the contextual information to make the question more specific, and thus avoid list-like answers, doesn't this approach introduce the possibility of a number of very similar questions being asked: What is the best citation guide for Scottish sources? What is the best citation guide for Canadian sources? and so on. Or would that not be a problem?


I dislike the 'best' concept, as everyone will think their answer refers to the best citation guide. Couldn't the question be changed to "What is the default/recommended citation guide for the UK: England and Wales specifically?" Then put the context info mentioned already into the body of the question? i.e. I've hunted..., everyone recommends..., but that doesn't work for me because...

  • 1
    The question deliberately doesn't ask for the 'best', although I'm not sure that asking for the 'recommended' won't get answers that suggest the 'best'.
    – user104
    Oct 14, 2012 at 14:06
  • @ColeValleyGirl Valid point, but to me the word 'best' is a red flag that a potential list question may follow. Oct 14, 2012 at 14:10
  • I'm not sure that recommended (or even default) is any better than best. Recommended by whom? Unless there is an Official, Recognised source for that recommendation (eg ISO standard) then we're back into the realms of personal opinion.
    – Andrew
    Oct 15, 2012 at 7:53

Unless the issue is generalised dissatisfaction with the canonical reference might the following be an appropriate question form?

Mills recommends that resources of type X be cited in style Y. In dealing with {country} in {time period}, the closest corresponding record type is Z which has {these characteristics} that do not match well with style Y.

  • (a) Is there an alternative standard that meets this need? or
  • (b) How might style Y be extended or modified to suit but stay within Mills' intent?

My intention is to provide enough specific context to preclude simplistic "This is the best new book" answers. It demands justification through a particular use case. The risk is that it could generate an infinite number of related questions. But if each meets a real need, then ...

  • If the issue was as you described -- confined to a single record type - that might work. However, it does imply that Mills is the only starting point, which was what my question was trying to find out.
    – user104
    Oct 14, 2012 at 14:14
  • I suppose a question could be worded: "Is there a better (more region-specific) starting point for citing English and Welsh sources than Mills?"
    – user104
    Oct 14, 2012 at 15:37
  • Let's say you asked "How can I find a more-region specific starting point for citing English and Welsh Sources than Mills?" One possible answer to that question might be to use citation indexes to see which researchers working in England and Wales have cited Evidence Explained.
    – Jan Murphy Mod
    Dec 3, 2013 at 19:55

I have posted an answer to ColeValleyGirl's question. I didn't go so far as to attempt to answer the questions about "how" to adapt Mills principles for use in other cultures. (I would be in favor of welcoming specific questions on that topic, though.)

What I did was overview some basics about comprehensive styles, submission guidelines and editors styles and even archive style guides, and I highlighted examples for each.

Take a look at the new answer posted. I'll be interested in any feedback folks have.

  • Thank you; I've posted a response to your answer, which is thorough and helpful but (as you say) doesn't help with adapting Mills principles.
    – user104
    Oct 15, 2012 at 20:42
  • I hope it was helpful. I did have some constructive feedback that it was too long and covered too much ground.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 15, 2012 at 21:59
  • BTW, Mills is "adapted" anyway ... but we all want a core set that is the basis for adaptation.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 15, 2012 at 22:00

I think we have to make sure to not overgeneralize the "no list questions" edict. Most of the other sites have discussions similar to this one and my conclusion from them is most list questions are bad 'because they don't have an answer' and that is because the are subjective (and become a popularity contest) and/or they become outdated quickly. The discussion on the other sites does allow there are some questions that have an answer that is a list.

For genealogy - "Who were the children of Mary Allerton (1618-1699, Mayflower passenger)?" is a list question. The answer is a list of eight children. But that list is a fact. It won't change length. There is not any subjective aspect. Since it does have a definitive stable answer, I think 'who were the children' questions should be allowed even though they have a list as an answer.

With respect to ColeValleyGirl's original question - it is somewhere in the grey area. It does have a subjective aspect and it does have the possibility of becoming outdated. Wrt subjective, it's not a 'what is the best' type question so I'd err on the side of allowing it. Wrt outdated - it's not likely to change that rapidly like a 'which camera should I buy" question - so again I'd err on the side of allowing it. The answers given are useful. But I also understand the sentiment that this question is on the slippery slope. Fortiter's answer (ie proposed rewording) and some of the others try to make it a more objective question which helps.

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