in which FRBR clarifies my thinking on citation styles

Hey, I finally figured out that thing about citation styles that annoys me. Basically, it’s FRBR.

Let me back up a moment. Back when electronic content was starting to explode, lots of citation styles were getting all persnickety about how to cite the electronic vs. the paper version of different things, and which database it came from, and all this crud. And I was thinking, why? Do I care? Does it really matter where I found an article? What possible way does its provenance matter to my argument?

In other words, I’m really not interested in item- or manifestation-level citations. The kind of arguments I make — the kind of arguments people in most disciplines, I think, make — are expression-level, caring only about the content in question and not the particular form in which it’s realized.

It reminds me of some of the discussion at The Past’s Digital Presence about the Google Books digitization, which went off in the opposite direction — that, by treating books solely in terms of their intellectual content and treating physical distinctions among items as irrelevant or uninteresting, Google Books was stripping out a vital part of the historical record. And that’s true, too — there are kinds of scholarship for which you need to see how history has nicked and scratched a particular object. There are kinds of scholarship where subtle differences among versions are important. And for those kinds of scholarship, we need both access (one of those distinct advantages of libraries, by the way) and citation with fine levels of granularity. Even in everyday but monograph-heavy scholarship, where we’re going to be citing page numbers, we need enough edition-specific description to contextualize that (except where there are discipline-specific conventions for avoiding that — yay, classics!).

But most of the papers I’ve written? I’m reading journal articles, and it really does not matter where I accessed them. So, dear citation formats of the world, thank you for noticing, and chilling the heck out a bit about this.

(Why, yes, my entire life has been eaten lately by putting together a paper for the LITA/Ex Libris student writing contest…it’s a good thing I didn’t realize in advance that “3000-5000 words” meant I would be writing a 20-page paper in the scraps of time during the 2 weeks when my daughter, presently on spring break, was asleep! Because, I mean, that’s impossible, and if I’d known it was impossible…

…oh hell, I would’ve done it anyway.)

5 thoughts on “in which FRBR clarifies my thinking on citation styles

  1. The reason style guides generally require you to say where and when you accessed an electronic document is for the same reason that you specify what edition of a book you used. Electronic versions of documents are not necessarily the same from vendor to vendor and do not necessarily have the same content as their print counterparts either. Even worse, electronic documents have a nasty habit of changing over time, and they don’t necessarily receive a new handy edition number each time they are modified. This isn’t true for all publications of course, but it is true for enough of them that it is generally a good idea to give this information to be on the safe side.


    1. Really! Well, that’s obnoxious of them. (Actually I had noticed that with print vs. electronic versions of the Boston Globe, but I assumed that was just because they really suck at having a web site.)

      It seems, in that case, though, that being all kinds of fiddly with citations (and expecting writers to capture lots of information they probably don’t care about) makes less sense than having some kind of version/edition information in the document that you can cite….although I suppose publishers have no incentive to provide that since it doesn’t necessarily make *their* lives easier. (Although…any idea how this interacts with the doi system?)


    2. Yes – according to one of the reference librarians at the library I work at, there’s been some recent discussion about illustrations in ebooks on the collib-l listserv. Apparently, particularly when dealing with backlist titles, publishers may not have the digital rights for all illustrations, even though they have the print rights, so the ebook versions may be missing illustrations.

      Since there’s often no way to tell if the electronic version has left something out, including the “annoying” details (for the person formulating the citations), like where you accessed them, can be important. If I’m helping someone at my library’s reference desk, and the electronic version of an article we’ve found doesn’t have everything the person needs, I go looking for a different electronic version, if we don’t have it in print. I don’t know if this is going to change in the future, but, for now anyway, where something came from is still important.


      1. Hi Melissa, and thanks for stopping by! 🙂

        It does make me feel better that someone might, if only in theory, find these details useful. I do wish they felt less like obnoxious and incomprehensible hoops I need to jump through lest some obsessive professor or editor mark me down, though. When citation details make no (apparent!) difference to my own ability to use or retrieve a document, keeping track of which I need to hunt down and why (especially when citation formats differ, and constantly change, and seldom seem to cover the exact situation at hand) is…nerve-wracking (how can I guess right about the format I should apply to my special case when the principles for why this information is included at all are not clearly explained?).

        I’m not clear on what would make this better, though (where by “better” I mean less arbitrary and meaningless to the citer, while still comprehensively helpful to end users). Certainly the automatic cite-this links increasingly popping up online help (…at least, when they include the format I need, which often they don’t). And if an article I’m looking at is a significant abridgement of a form available elsewhere, that would be nice to know. Hm.


      2. I understand your pain – I see it in students at my own university all the time, and it was only a few years ago I went through the same thing myself. I have to admit preferring to deal with the questions involving MLA versus the ones involving APA, because its handling of e-resources is simpler.


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