Explaining Sourcing

You ever noticed when someone says something in an article and the sentence ends with like (Mayonnaise, 2021)? That’s sourcing, and it’s a short-hand inline form made for a time of typesetters to say ‘check in the references list for the reference made at this time and this date.’ It’s a really remarkable system, not in how it works or what it does, but rather, in its application at scale.

These days, when we use blogs, hyperlinks let us provide references to sources, which is handy, and good practice. That system relies on the medium you’re reading being, well, a digital front end of our current design of the internet. While phones and computers and tablets are all very different interfaces when compared to one another, as far as comparing them to say, books, they’re very simple.

Sourcing, as we use it in scholarship and academia is a very simple system – simple enough you can even do it without any digital infrastructure. We know you can do it without digital infrastructure, because the base form of it predates the computer. And yes, even that type of computer. Even Charles’ Babbage’s type of computer.

As far back as the 1700s, academics would write their letters to one another, and to the universities that stored copies of their letters, and provide specific mention of the letters, books, and so on that they were referencing. This practice of behaviour has been more or less continuous since then — meaning that there is a practice of citation and interconnection for meaning-making and ideas that predate the country I live in.

That’s not to say that the 1700s letters had (this kind, 1702) of references. That’s a modern stylistic thing, which is part of modernising the whole process to standardise it for an era when we have industrialisation at work — like typesetting and then the rise of the personal computer and all that jazz. Right now, even now, the style guides are being updated, as we try to find ways to meaningfully and easily cite tweets, podcasts, and youtube videos, which I think is something that the university system doesn’t like. Why?

Because part of the point of references is to provide long-term provenance. The aim, the aspiration, is that if I reference a book, it should be able to reach back, through everything that book references, then through what that book references and so on and so forth, to create an unbroken chain that extends to the earliest points these ideas were being discussed, as best we can, and that that chain of connection can transcend the individual. The ideal is that there is no isolated arbiter, no gatekept position, no locked archive where a text is sealed away and everyone who references it has to rely on trust.

There is a system, an almost lovecraftian creature, that lives in our world; it spreads across all languages and ideologies, across history and cultures, and it connects as best it can every piece of human knowledge it can understand to other parts of human culture; it cannot collect or archive everything, but if you want to contribute to it, you get to put your words in this system that aspirationally, wants to make sure that three hundred years from now, someone who doesn’t even speak your language, can delve back in time, and have a conversation with your thoughts, and with the context in which those thoughts were framed, and this system is maintained with paper and pens and lockboxes and things that try to be timeproofed. It is a strange idea of immortality, that you can photocopy an image of your own thoughts into a system that wants to try to be eternal.

I already have citations in my honours thesis that are gone, because twitter works that way. Someone can leave twitter, and suddenly that information is gone, because twitter is a notepad, not a source.

What I’m saying is get a blog and also please maybe archive your work as well.

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