University of Botswana History Department

Citation of electronic sources

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Citation of electronic sources: the problems

Electronic sources are new, and scholarly practice has not yet settled down. However, the basic principle of all citation applies: a citation is meant to be useful to the reader. A reader wants to know the source of information

  1. in order to make some assessment of its reliability
  2. in some cases, in order to locate the source material

The following are some suggestions.

As with any academic source, the standard details of author, title, and date are essential. However, decsribing the source is not quite so simple.

The URL (internet address) of any source cited should of course be given. URLs are generally cited in angle brackets [see note], and should be complete, including the protocol (http, gopher etc). E.g. <> However, URLs keep changing as files are re-organized. Other information, such as the name of the site, can be used to search for the material using search-engines or directories.

A more serious problem is that on-line resources can disappear from the Web altogether. Where material is updated, the old version may or may not be preserved.

Where an on-line source is a reproduction of a source of another type, such as a printed book, this information should be included.

Dates: one should of course include any informative date given in the source (date of electronic publication, "last updated" date, etc.). The original date of the document, if it is given, is important. However it is also recommended to include the date on which the source was accessed, as this can be useful if there have been differing versions of the same document. In particular, this information may enable the document to be recovered from Internet archives such as the Wayback Machine (see above), which records what was on-line at a particular date. (In some cases the publisher of the page might also have dated old versions of the page.)

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Our current recommendation

Our current recommendation is that the following should be given for a web-page:
Author (if given), title, web-site, URL, date of page, date of access.
Note however that some pages may not fit this format well. The essential thing is to make sure that the document and its location are both specified. It will often be useful to add information which explains the nature of the document or the web-site.

Thus, a reference to the Botswana History Pages might read:

Neil Parsons, "Brief History of Botswana", Botswana History Pages no. 1, University of Botswana History Department web-site, <>: dated "1999, last update 10 January 2000"; accessed 12 January 2000.

[I.e., Author (if given), title, web-site, URL, date of page, date of access.]

This example illustrates, in fact, some of the potential problems and why the citation should include these details. The URL reference is to the now-extinct version of the site. This no longer exists and apparently was not recorded by the Internet Archive. Of course, in this case the same page can now be found on the site. The information in the citation, such as "Neil Parsons", "Brief History of Botswana", "Botswana History Pages" and "University of Botswana History Department web-site" would make it very easy to find this new site. If the citation had only given the original URL, it would be quite difficult to trace the reference by now. Note the importance of the name of the web-site, here "University of Botswana History Department web-site": this is much more stable than the URL. Our web-site has already had three quite different URLs.

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In a written essay, any electronic sources which were used should of course be listed in the bibliography. In a bibliography it is customary to give the work consulted - e.g. the title of the book, rather than a page reference to the exact pages used. Similarly, for electronic sources it is appropriate to list the sites or resources used, rather than individual pages.

However, for web-sites it is not quite so obvious what constitutes the appropriate unit. Suppose you had used Neil Parsons, "Brief History of Botswana", Botswana History Pages no. 1. If you only used this one page, it might be appropriate to cite it in the bibliography as an item by itself. Thus:

Neil Parsons, "Brief History of Botswana", Botswana History Pages no. 1, University of Botswana History Department web-site, <>: dated "1999, last update 10 January 2000", accessed 1 January 2003.

However if you had used the Botswana History Pages as a whole, you might cite the Botswana History Pages as the work:

Neil Parsons, "Botswana History Pages" University of Botswana History Department web-site, <>: dated 1999, accessed 1 January 2003.

(Note that the URL given here is the index page for the Botswana History Pages.) Then again, if you had consulted material from the University of Botswana History Department web-site more widely, you might cite the site:

University of Botswana History Department web-site, <>: accessed 1-10 January 2003.

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Sources whose locations are not simple URLs

Sometimes you have to access information by going to a site and then going through a series of menu options. In such cases it may not be possible to give a simple URL. What to do? Remember the basic principle - the citation is supposed to be useful, to enable the reader (1) to find the source and (2) to know what sort of source it is even without actually going to it. The solution in this case is to give the URL of the page you go to, followed by the menu path (e.g.
"menu path: Politicians -- 20th century -- K-M")

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Other formats:

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Guides for historical writing:

See the H-Net guide to citation of electronic sources for a detailed discussion and some recommendations for citation in historical writing. The H-Net format is rather minimalist: for web-sites it includes only the author, date, title and URL. Thus:

Neil Parsons, "Brief History of Botswana" (Botswana History Pages no. 1), <> 1999.

For the reasons given above, in the present state of the Internet it is probably safer to include other details. On the other hand the format suggested above may be considered too detailed.

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General style guides:

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 5th ed. (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1999) includes some detailed prescriptions (4.9: pp. 178-202), but these seem more geared to sources which have also been published apart from their on-line form. The sample reference above would be, assuming that it falls under 4.9.2.b ("A Document within a Scholarly Project of Information Database")

Parsons, Neil. "Brief History of Botswana". Botswana History ages no. 1. 1999. University of Botswana History Department. 12 Jan. 2000. <>.

(12 Jan. 2000 being the date of access.)

Notice that while a date is given in both the H-Net and MLA formats, it is a different date. One is the date of the document, while the other is the date of access. Neither format explicitly states what the date means, which could cause confusion if the reader is unsure of the precise format being followed (or just assumes one or the other meaning). This is one reason we have not followed either of these formats but have made our own recommendation - we recommend that if you use such a format, you state somewhere what the dates mean. Always remember: citation is supposed to be useful.

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Further reading:

The H-Net guide, mentioned above, includes a list of "Additional Materials on Electronic Citation".

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Addendum September 2003

A very useful example is set by the online Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. This ends each entry with a brief "How to cite this biography", as in the following example:

Roth, Herbert. 'Parnell, Samuel Duncan 1810 - 1890'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 31 July 2003

This format does not give the exact URL (in this case ) but gives the site address and the date.

Note on angle-brackets: the use of angle-brackets to enclose URLs has one curious drawback when creating web-pages. If you paste the text "<>" into an HTML document, it will be interpreted as an unknown tag - anything in angle-brackets is a tag in HTML, such as <font> .. </font> - and therefore will not appear on the page. To represent "<" and ">" on an HTML page you must use the escape sequences &lt; and &gt;
(and to represent "&" you have to use &amp; !)

Note on "http://: Note that a URL begins with the scheme (such as http://, mailto:, etc.) as in In typing a URL into most browsers, you can get away with omitting the http:// as this is what the browser will assume. However it is important to include the scheme in a citation, because a significant number of electronic archives use the older gopher:// scheme. "Gopher" was a predecessor of the Web. (The Web is not synonymous with the Internet - the Internet is older, and the WWW is a way of using the Internet invented in the 1990s.)

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Copyright © 1999 University of Botswana History Department
Last updated 12 March 2006