Citations in the Humanities

I have written a few articles and more than a few essays for school/class. I know most of the major citations styles (MHRA, MLA, Chicago, etc.). Mostly, however, I use biblatex to format them all. However, I have begun to think that most of these citation styles are really just pointers to other resources or more generally they are really just URLs with a arcane special formatting rules. Many academics are obsessed with these bits of meta-data as they validate that the writer knows the rules of the road. When I read academic articles or books, I generally don’t notice or skip over citations as, while they are necessary and useful, they don’t always help with digestion of the actual argument. Although, occasionally in fields I know well, I will scan the citation to see who they are referencing just for credibility purposes.

In any case, that brings me to the format for these citations. Many of them have: the author, publisher, date, place of publication, and page number. In the “bad old days”, these were necessary to allow the reader to trace arguments and facts. Now, however, we have the greatest machine ever created to do that for us: the URL and the Internet. The first thing you may ask is: how do you cite books then? Well, you may have not noticed but the Library of Congress now has a permalink. For instance, The Road to Judgment. So, in the “Yocum Style Citation” (YSC), which I just made up, you would put “Stacey, Robin Chapman. pg. 55” in a footnote. For a journal article, the DOI, Handle, Jstor stable URL plus page number. If you don’t want to use the Library of Congress permalink for books, you can use Worldcat’s ( instead. Unfortunately, the British Library does not yet have permalinks for its collection. What happens if the URL is too long? DOI has a shortening service for DOIs. OpenURLs are notoriously awful for being long. I don’t have a solution to that but, given that DOIs are pretty much de facto now, it won’t matter too much. You could use a shortened url in the text and a full URL in the bibliography, which are still required under YCS but are generally the same except that you put full URLs instead of any shortened ones that are in the text.

Why do this? First, I am tired of the rather complex and arcane rules of citations in the Humanities. Every journal seems to have its own preferred style and it makes submitting to these journals difficult and if you get turned down and resubmit it else where, you have to completely change everything. Second, URLs are good enough now to cite with. The Internet is not leaving us any time soon. If you are that paranoid, just require the full citation in the bibliography.

It is high time we change to make it easier for everyone. If I want to look up a book citation, I can just go to the url and get the book from my local library or if it is a DOI, Handle, or Jstor stable URL, I can get the article right away. If I don’t have access to the internet that second, it’s not like I cannot get access later.

Teaching the arcane rules with attached URLs just does not make much sense. It duplicates information and makes it harder on the student or writer. It makes the humanities look out of touch and old. For medievalists, like myself, even the manuscripts now have URLs and can be referenced via them so instead of using some off-the-cuff MS citation method because each archive is different and each has a different way of cataloguing their collections, you can use the URL to point to the exact MS page you are talking about.

Anyway, I will probably be putting this into practice myself soon as I get the chance.

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About cyocum

user-pic Celticist, Computer Scientist, Nerd, sometimes a poet…