Skip to content

Alternative Citations?

Someone sent me this link a couple weeks ago.

To be completely honest, I didn’t even realize it was a joke until the second entry.

The first one seemed completely commonsensical– of course you need a technique to cite graffiti. What if you’re working on a paper about, say, the use of Situationist graffiti in Paris in 1968. Or even a paper on contemporary graffiti– these things often get political or personal, they’re interesting and colorful, you could probably apply some of the same theories of anonymity and role-playing that people like Lisa Nakamura apply to the Internet. There’s some good papers there.

Only when I got to the method for properly citing a magic 8-ball or alien mind transmissions did I realize it was a joke. To be honest, I still like the idea of a citation format for graffiti or tattoos. I think they’re both things that one could find insight in. Maybe it’s just me, though.

But that experience got me to wonder about citations, and the role they play in our lives as students and academics. How much do we allow the people at the University of Chicago Press dictate what is or is not a valid object of academic work?

This is one of the challenges faced by anyone who does scholarly work on the Internet. The Chicago Manual of Style just has one catch-all category of "electronic source." When I was in college, I remember how excited the reference librarian got when he showed me the library’s first book that dealt with online citations.

Without an agreed-upon method of citing a source, the source itself is cast in a sort of shadow. If there’s no consensus about how to cite it, you open yourself up to battles between readers or editors about how to structure your citations that could leave your work in limbo while they thrust and perry. Some people are willing to take that chance, and they’re slowly starting to develop a consensus about certain questions of online citation, and opening up new questions… Should a blog post and an online newspaper really be cited the same way?

But there’s something deeper than all that going on here– how much do standards of citation unconsciously affect our decisions about what is or is not a valid object of scholarly research? It’s a difficult question to answer. It seems reasonable to assume, however, that standardized citation techniques do lend a certain amount of authority to certain types of texts. Might their absence do the opposite?

I was trolling around the Internet, and I couldn’t find much of anything on the history of standardized citation. Having done research that involved reading history books and literary criticism from the 1920s and earlier, I knew that the cult of MLA, APA, and Chicago (not to mention that radical Turabian splinter group) wasn’t always the monolith in academe it is today. In fact, back then, there seems to have been NO discipline-wide standardized citation technique.

Not that I’m saying that was a better situation– reading those sources can be a nightmare. It’s citation anarchy. If I had a dime for every time I encountered someone saying, "As Smith wrote in his diary," without clarifying who Smith was, whether his diary had ever been published, and if it hadn’t, where it could be accessed… well, I wouldn’t be a rich man, but I’d probably be a might happier. I would never advocate going back to those days, even if there are certain drawbacks to standardized citation as we know it today.

One thing I found that was interesting to me, however, was that (according to those all-knowing sages at wikipedia) the first edition of the Chicago Manual of Style was published in 1906. This shocked me, because from my own personal observation, citation standardization didn’t really take off until the mid-century.

But then, I saw this: at the time, the title was  Manual of Style: Being a compilation of the typographical rules in
force at the University of Chicago Press, to which are appended
specimens of type in use
. Rather than being a conscriptive standard set for all academics within a a certain set of disciplines, it was actually a guide to how to format things for the U of Chicago Press.

APA style first appeared as six pages of guidelines in The Psychological Bulletin in 1929, and the first edition of the manual was printed  in 1953. Similarly, somewhat later, the MLA first distributed a style sheet in 1951, and didn’t publish a manual until 1977. Obviously, the fifties were a time when the issue of standardization of style took on a new importance. I’d love to hear someone explain why. Also, it’s interesting that in all three cases, it really is the style itself that differs. The sorts of texts considered are fairly uniform. Is this perhaps a relic of fifties conservatism and fear of sticking out?

This is all rambling, and doesn’t really go anywhere. But I’d love to find more information and theories about how and why standardized citation came about when it did, and about when they were making the first decisions about what made the style-manual cut and what didn’t.

It’s all rather interesting to me.

If anyone reads this and has any books or articles to suggest, PLEASE comment.