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The devil’s in the details

Evidence Explained

The phrase “the devil’s in the details” generally means that “small things in plans and schemes that are often overlooked can cause serious problems later on.”1

When I started out as a baby genealogist, I made absolutely every one of the mistakes that baby genealogists make. I accepted without question the conclusion of a published family history that my Baker line was descended from Alexander Baker of Boston2 (we’re not3), my mother’s assertion in my sister’s baby book that her great grandparents were born in Ireland and Wales4 (only if Ireland and Wales were small towns in Mississippi5) and — of course — that most lawyerly of baby-genealogist-with-law-degree mistakes.

That, I am loath to confess, is the mistake of believing that the purpose of a citation in genealogy is so that others can find the record we used and duplicate our research.

Now, in my own defense, that really is the purpose of a citation in law: because American law is built on precedents, we cite cases or laws or other authorities that we rely on mostly to prove that we really did quote the source correctly to say what the law is.

But in genealogy that’s the least important of the reasons to cite sources. And nobody makes that point more clearly and more persuasively than Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of the groundbreaking Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace.6

Here’s the simple difference, direct7 from Elizabeth’s new website, Evidence Explained:

Traditional Citations Evidence Explained
Emphasis on output—i.e., the minimum details needed at publication to enable readers to relocate a source. Emphasis on input—i.e., the details researchers need to capture while using a record, in order to understand (a) the nature of the source and (b) the strengths and weaknesses of the information that source provides.

The detail we need as genealogists isn’t where we found the information. What we need are all those small things that are often overlooked and that come back later to trip us up time and time again. Who said it? How did the person know? Is this an original document or a copy? Who prepared the copy? When? Why? Is critical information written in a different handwriting, a different ink?

Duh. You have no idea (and I refuse to divulge) how long it took me to get this.

And I can’t begin to say how important this point is.

So I won’t. Instead, what I’ll do is point you to the Evidence Explained website, which is chock full of goodies for genealogists.

First off, there is a fabulous price on an electronic version of Evidence Explained. All 885 pages of it, for $27.95. And it’s good for three separate devices. Laptop, desktop, even an e-reader or a phone if you can figure out how to load it onto those.

Secondly, for $8.95 each, you can get electronic versions of all of the QuickSheets as well. And while two of those do focus on citations — Citing Databases and Images and Citing Online Historical Resources — there’s a whole set of Quicksheets that are really research guides:

     • The Historical Biographer’s Guide to the Research Process

     • The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research

     • The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Finding People in Databases and Indexes

     • The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Individual Problem Analysis

And if that isn’t enough, there’s also a set of forums focusing on three distinct but related aspects of analyzing evidence: Citation Issues; Evidence Analysis Issues; and Record Usage and Interpretation. All you need to do is register to use the site (you don’t have to buy a thing) and you can ask your questions and get expert help.

Such a deal. Especially when the alternative is that devil lurking in those details.


  1. Idiom: Devil is in the detail,” ( : accessed 2 Apr 2012).
  2. Elma W. Baker, The Rugged Trail (Dallas : p.p., 1973).
  3. DNA testing has definitely shown that if my Bakers have a common ancestor with the Alexander Baker descendants, his name was probably Adam.
  4. “Life Tree,” Log-O-Life (baby book) (Cleveland : McMillan-Foley Pub. Co., 1946), entries by Hazel C. Geissler; digital images in possession of Judy G. Russell, New Jersey.
  5. See e.g. 1860 U.S. census, Attala County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 76 (penned), dwelling 455, family 494, Gustavus B. and Isabella Robertson; digital image, ( : accessed 2 Apr 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 577.
  6. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2d ed. (Baltimore : Genealogical Pub. Co., 2009).
  7. I’ve taken the liberty of changing the left-hand heading from “Traditional Guides” to “Traditional Citations” to make my point.
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