Census Citation Formats: Arrangement of place elements

For several years now I have been cleaning up my database and formatting citations. This last week an interesting observation occurred with a post on a mailing list discussion about 1940 census citations. I noticed that the examples where "...County, State, population schedule, City/Township or District..."

When I looked at this I was dumfounded, I thought why is the city etc. after population schedule. My citations all start with the city etc. followed by the county and state. I pulled out my battered copy of EE and looked it up and sure enough the order in EE is County, State... How did I miss this? What was I thinking?

Now I am faced with leaving about 5000 census citations in the City, County, State format or changing them to the EE format. The good news all my citations are consistent. Questions swirling in my brain: Is there an advantage to changing them? Am I willing to take the time to change 5000 citations? It would probably take me 5 or 6 hours of cutting and pasting to change them.

Lesson learned yet again, read the entire example!

Ann Gilchrest

Submitted byEEon Sat, 04/07/2012 - 13:46


In EE’s view, the most important issues in citing sources are these:

  • thoroughness, so that we (or others) have all the information needed to evaluate our evidence, as well as to relocate the source; and
  • consistency, so we (or others) can understand what we’re doing.

From what you say, you are meeting both these needs. If you submit part of your work to a journal or an academic publisher, your citations will be expected to follow the specific format used in that venue. Those formats can differ widely. Given that you are already using EE, you would have gathered all the details needed to provide a citation to any publisher, regardless of the format required. So you’re squared-away on that need also.

In the meanwhile, does it really matter that you have cited your censuses by Town, County, State rather than County, State, ... Town?  Technically, yes. But hardly enough to redo 5,000 citations! 

For those who like technical explanations, we can plunge deeper into the tangles of the subject . . .

The arrangement of elements in a well-done citation has a logical underpinning. The sequence of location data in a census citation reflects the way census records are arranged, filmed, and accessed.  When we use the U.S. decennial censuses on microfilm, we typically follow this hierarchy to peg a person:

  • Year
  • State and county
  • Type of schedule
  • Local jurisdiction (and, post-1870, Supervisor’s District and/or Enumeration District)
  • Page
  • Household/dwelling/family/line numbers

Within this framework, the second element of the hierarchy is sometimes adjusted to reflect everyday usage. In common practice, we do not say we are from Iowa, Pottawattamie County. We put the county first.

In a bibliography (a source list) a typical citation to a place follows the formal practice of putting the state-name first. Reference notes, on the other hand, typically arrange data by “natural speech.”  This practice syncs with the way we treat the names of authors in our citations. In a bibliography, we place the larger element first—i.e., Surname, Firstname Middlename. In an English-language reference note, we use “natural order”: Firstname Middlename Lastname

That natural-speech principle would also explain why you have been citing censuses in the Town, County, State arrangement. The only “problem” with it is the fact that it presents, as the first element, a piece of data that we normally do not need until we are four levels deep into the location process. On the other hand, if your research is centered in a metropolitan area, the city might be the appropriate first element in your location process—as with independent cities such as St. Louis, Missouri, or Alexandria, Virginia.

All these considerations are why the first sentence of EE’s chapter “Fundamentals of Citation” (EE 2.1) says Citation is an art, not a science. As researchers, if we first learn the basic principles of citing sources, then we can safely adapt them to fit specific needs.

In your case, purists might call your adaptation an “infelicity,” but it does no harm.