Consistently inconsistent?

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I’ve got a bit behind in my reading lately. Although it was published in May 2018, I came across Jennifer Yao Weinraub’s  Harder to Find than Nemo: The Elusive Image Citation Standard only recently.  In this paper, Weinraub discusses confusion and inconsistencies in the citation of images and the lack of good examples, with particular reference to MLA8 and Chicago. She also discusses other style guides and citation generators, the recommendations of some specific image collections. She points to tutorials and libguides which also attempt to give guidance.

Coming across this article is timely.  Over the last few weeks I seem to have received a steady stream of image citation questions in my inbox. Some notifications originate in online groups and forums, some are emails sent to me directly. It’s a hot topic!  The images presented by questioners are rarely straight-forward, rarely textbook examples. I suppose if they were, there would be less doubt as to how to cite them, the questions would not be asked.  So it is good to find Weinraub’s article, if only to confirm the difficulties and the contradictory or missing advice.

Weinraub suggests confusion in the use of the terms caption and citation (which I would call “reference” – the location details which specify edition (etc) and enable retrieval). She also suggests differences, uncertainty and inconsistencies as to what might or should be included in these. She also notes that when example captions and citations are given, they are often for known artworks, not necessarily the kind of images used or the type of sources used by school and college students, especially in presentations and posters as against formal academic papers.

Weinraub’s distinction between caption and citation/ reference is useful. The caption for the image is placed with the image; it might be below, above or at the side of the image on the page; it serves to provide details about the image including title and artist/creator, and perhaps other information which can add to one’s understanding of the images.  The citation/ reference, on the other hand, should enable the reader to locate the image itself and/or the source that the writer used, be that gallery, book or periodical, website, and so on. Sometimes, she notes, style guides recommend that the citation/ reference is merged into the caption.

The main purpose of Weinraub’s paper is to advocate a common citation standard along with plentiful examples of captions and citations/ references for different types of images in all style guides – certainly in MLA and Chicago, her particular concerns in this paper.  She is especially critical of MLA8, which provides very few examples indeed.  Nor is it just images: it’s other kinds of non-narrative text as well, graphical representations such as maps and charts and graphs and tables and so on.

I am sympathetic to Weinraub’s plea – but not sure of the practicalities. it becomes difficult for the style guides to keep up with the many new apps and formats and the very creativity of those who make images (especially if we take this further to include other forms of illustration and presentation generally).  We could end up with many many examples for many many situations, and still be playing catch-up.  This is one of the reasons why the Modern Language Association (MLA) gave up trying to provide examples of any and every kind of source a writer might need to document, and instead offers principles which will guide the compilation of citations and references, principles which will guide in any situation.   More on this below.

A problem for the user of style guides: when faced with too many examples, the user may find it difficult to find the exact example that matches the current situation – which includes the intended audience for the paper or presentation in which the image is used.  In a Visual Arts essay, the size of a painting can be important, as can the medium used, the materials used, the techniques used and more. If it’s a photograph being discussed, then exposure details such as the lens used, the aperture, the speed, the filters, the time of day or year, any digital effects used, and so on might be important.  Such details will ideally be provided in the caption alongside the image, there for the interested reader at point of use because they add to our understanding.

These additional details might be of less significance if the painting is used, for instance, in a History essay or the photograph in a Geography paper.  They might not be needed at all if the image is used in a paper or a presentation in which they are illustrations rather than of textual importance. Audience and purpose present variables, examples of details to be included in captions cannot cover all combinations and situations.

Captions are used to increase our understanding, along with the Fig. numbers which allow quick reference to particular illustrations in the course of the text.  Citations/ references, on the other hand, give us location details. They tell us where to find the painting, the gallery in which it hangs or the web page on which the image used was found, the database or collection, the article in which the photograph or chart can be found, and so on. Again, the  variables are many.  It strikes me that MLA8’s notion of containers can be used to build a reference – whatever the actual style guide being followed.  Start with the image itself (creator and title) and work outwards in whatever type of source material is used.

[More on the notion of containers can be found in my post, Back to basics – MLA8 revisited – or try the Noodletools tutorial, How to teach MLA8 containers.]

This distinction between caption and location details is helpful, and is also very much in line with the principles of MLA8, especially principles 2 and 3:

Remember that there is often
more than one correct way to document a source.
Make your documentation useful to your readers.
(MLA Handbook, 8th ed., p. 4).

For those who need it, a checklist approach might help, a list of features and information about different types of image, something similar to the table on the last few pages of Effective citing and referencing (downloadable from the IB’s Digiital Toolkit : Brochures, flyers and posters : General Materials).  Writers could then decide which of the listed features can be identified in regard to the image they are working with and then which of these are necessary and/or helpful for their readers.  Indeed, this could apply to any kind of source material, not just images – as in the Digital Toolkit brochure. 

Once those elements which will be helpful to readers have been identified, for captions and/or for citations/references, the “rules” of the style guide can be applied, Upper Case or lower case, titles in quotation marks or titles in italics, medium, size, materials, location, and so on and so on.

Ideally, such a checklist will serve as temporary support or scaffolding for students new to a subject. As they learn the conventions and are exposed to the literature of the subject, as good examples of captions and references are discussed with them (and poor examples too), so they will gain awareness of what is helpful, why it can be helpful to know the details used. They might become more discriminating, aware when details are missing and they ache to know them the better to understand what they are looking at. It would need to be understood that the checklist cannot be comprehensive, cannot cover every type of image or illustration or audience and so on; it is for the writer to extrapolate and decide: “What will help my readers?”

In short, distinguish between caption and location.  In the caption, as well as stating the creator of the image and the title, give as many or as few details as necessary for the reader to understand and appreciate the image – and link the caption with the reference, which gives the location details.  Make it helpful, make it useful.

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