Citing digital resources

Guest blogger Jonathan Blaney, Project Editor for British History Online, explains why, if we use digital resources, we should cite them:

I work for British History Online, which is a digital library of historical sources relating to the British Isles. Most of our material is freely available to anyone and we get a very healthy readership. What’s more, we’ve been going for 10 years now (we’re celebrating our anniversary this summer: if you’d like to you can enter our Flickr competition here) and we’ve built up the library slowly and carefully, going for quality over quantity. Perhaps for these reasons we don’t get many complaints, but when we do they’re likely to be about one thing: page numbers.

At the beginning of the project, 10 years ago, a decision was taken not to display page numbers in the running text. As you’re reading a text on British History Online you won’t know exactly what page of the original book you’re on at the time. We give a page range at the top of each webpage, as, here for example, and the table of contents gives the page range of each ‘chapter’ (we sometimes have to divide up books rather arbitrarily, to stop each part becoming too long, so the notion of a chapter is hazier in some cases than others).

What are people complaining about when they write in? They want to cite the original book, the one they’ve been reading on BHO, and they can’t easily find the relevant page number of that book. Let’s be clear: they want to cite a book that they haven’t read. They’ve read the same text, on BHO, as they would have read if they’d got hold of the print version (which is not always easy, in some cases), but it never seems to occur to the people complaining to cite BHO itself.

What we aim to produce on BHO is exactly the same text as in the print version, but in a different form: it’s a different entity. Citing the print version, we therefore think, is misleading at best. Now certainly there are arguments for preferring print citations to be given additionally, but I don’t know any good argument for not citing the digital version when it’s the version you used. However, no one has ever written in and said that they want to cite the print version because they don’t want to cite the digital version – in my experience the arguments against digital citation tend to be post hoc reasoning, given to justify a feeling that print is better because it is somehow more scholarly.

Usually the people who write to complain also mention how valuable BHO is for their research. They presumably wouldn’t want it to disappear. But sites like BHO have to justify their existence and one way to do that is show that they are useful to researchers. How can they show they are useful to researchers? By showing that they are cited. And there lies a problem.

Jonathan Blaney

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