The Importance of Citing Sources in Folklore

In a properly cited book, the reader is able to check source material if he or she suspects the author is coming to false conclusions, using sloppy research, or simply inventing things.

Over the course of my lifetime, I have read dozens, if not hundreds, of books on folklore and ghost stories from all over the United States and the world. One problem that comes up again and again is the failure of many authors in this genre to properly cite their sources. Otherwise excellent books are tarnished by this simple oversight.

It is an oversight that not only does a disservice to the individual authors and hinders research, but also prevents the study of folklore and ghost stories from being taken seriously. Simply learning to cite sources would go a long way to solving a lot of the problems that plague books and articles in this genre.

Citing sources helps keep authors honest and promotes accuracy. Without naming names, one author in particular comes to mind that perfectly illustrates why this is so important. He has written dozens of books on haunted places in Illinois. While some of his books include a bibliography, his research is sloppy and difficult to verify. I have been frustrated by discovering numerous inaccuracies, errors, and instances of plagiarism in his work.

The only reason I was able to discover these things is because I have read so many other books and articles, and happened to speak with individuals who had firsthand knowledge of the mistakes. Because this author fails to cite his sources, however, the casual reader is forced to simply take his word at face value. There is no way for them to independently verify any of the information in his books. Consequently, no academic or serious researcher will ever use his books as source material. There is just too high of a chance the information will be inaccurate.

In a properly cited book, the reader is able to locate and check source material if he or she suspects the author is coming to false conclusions, using sloppy research, or simply inventing things. This is especially important in the genre of folklore and ghost stories because it involves stories that are passed down from one person to another.

Of course there are going to be variations and embellishments. That’s okay, as long as I can go back and determine where those variations and embellishments came from. That’s what separates folklore and ghost stories from pure fiction—the fact that someone, somewhere, reported the story as if it were true. Was it originally reported in a newspaper article? Did an eyewitness relate his encounter on the local news? We need to know.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz is a good example of a book that gets it right. I mention this book in particular because it is, essentially, a storybook for children. The stories are written in simple narrative form, and are retellings of well known folktales from around the United States. Schwartz did not have to cite any of his sources, but he chose to not only include several pages of notes on each story, but also a complete list of sources, including publications, variants, and the names of collectors and informants.

That way, for each story, a reader may discover exactly where Schwartz obtained the story, and where he or she may go to read those original sources for him or herself. The addition of these sources does nothing to detract from the stories themselves—most children probably never even read past the final story. But they are there in case a more studious mind wants to research the tales. And that’s how all books of folklore and ghost stories should be–both entertaining and informative.

Citing sources is not difficult. There are many ways to do it, and many guides that show you how. Because my background is in history, I prefer to use Chicago Style citations, but you can use whatever you are most comfortable with, as long as it allows your readers to locate the source you used.

Internet sources are particularly tricky because the Internet is constantly changing. There are differences between citations in printed books and articles and blog posts and articles online. You can’t embed a link in a printed book, but you can on a website. Likewise, you can’t embed a link to a printed book on a website. You have to learn to use good judgement.

Plagiarism on the Internet is a pernicious problem, and learning how to properly cite would go a long way to alleviating that problem. Lazy writers copy and paste—but if you want your blog or website to be taken seriously and cited by other writers and researchers, you should acknowledge where you got your information. An embedded link to a website that helped your research is always appropriate.

A writer has a responsibility to be as clear and informative as possible. I can understand the perception that citations clutter up the text and may complicate things for the reader, but these are merely cosmetic concerns. The benefits of proper citation far outweigh any perceived disadvantages. If you are in the process of writing a book or article about folklore and ghost stories, or are thinking about writing one, please do the right thing and carefully cite your sources. Not only will your readers look at you with higher regard, but you will be doing a service to the entire genre as well.

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