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.)