How to Cite the FBI, and Other Challenges for the Historian

December 12, 2019

How to Cite the FBI, and Other Challenges for the HistorianCitations are the bane of many a student, absolutely critical yet seemingly so hard to master. In a recent Berkeley Connect in History discussion, mentor and recent History PhD-recipient Camilo Lund-Montano helped students understand the tricky world of citing using the Chicago Manual of Style, the accepted standard for historical writing. 

Lund-Montano acclimated students to the ins and outs of using Chicago citations, using the helpful guides provided by the Chicago Manual of Style Online. This tool acts as a quick reference for anyone looking to figure out how to cite anything and everything using Chicago citations. For example, citing a full book as a note goes like this: John Smith [First and last name of your author, in that order], A Traveler’s Guide [Book title], (Berkeley [City of Publication], UC Press [Publisher], 2019 [date]), 47-93 [Pages Cited]. 

While this system may seem convoluted initially, plug a few books or other written works in using the guidelines provided and it’ll become second nature in no time! Feeling bogged down having to re-cite the same source over and over again in a paper? Make use of citation shortcut “Ibid.” Latin for ibidem or “in the same place,” this term lets readers know that you are reusing a source cited immediately prior. If you ever feel uncertain that you’re doing it right, don’t be shy about using citation websites such as CitationMachine to iron out any kinks in your citations. 

An important distinction in the realm of history is that of primary versus secondary sources. A primary source comes directly from a period of history, such as a first-hand account of events that took place. A secondary source is an analysis of primary sources that might try to provide context or additional explanation. Both are key for historians in their research: primary sources are the foundation of historical analysis and secondary sources identify new possibilities and paths of research. Of course, both sets of sources must be cited, but how do they differ?

The Berkeley Connect students worked as groups to create citations for decades-old primary sources ranging from FBI memorandums and New York Times articles to survival guides and personal letters. The takeaway? It’s a lot harder to cite a primary source than a secondary one! Some of the challenges include the lack of clear titles, the inability to decipher authors, and the vague nature of some publishing dates. With a secondary source, the work has already been done for you, as these are usually published books in which it is easy to find the authors, dates, titles, and other details necessary to create a full citation. Nevertheless, primary sources are critical to historical research, so it is necessary to scrape as much information as possible from whatever source you are using to create your citation! 

History helps us better understand the world around us, as it was hundreds of years ago and as it is today. As historians discover and develop new sources, this understanding continually evolves. Citations can seem like an annoying part of the process, but they are vital to good research, as they create a path that allows others to follow in your footsteps and build upon your work. 

posted by Dylan McIlvenna-Davis, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant (Class of ’20)