The Mechanics of Citation

Think about citation as combining a set of building blocks together to make a structure, with each citation style building a slightly different final product from a similar set of materials. Here is the information you should gather for some common media formats. You won’t necessarily need all these pieces of information for all citation styles, but it’s helpful to have them just in case.

Common Citation Types


  • author(s)
  • title
  • publisher
  • place of publication (city and state or country)
  • year of publication
  • original year of publication (if this is a new edition)
  • page numbers cited

Journal or magazine article

  • author(s)
  • article title
  • journal title
  • volume and issue numbers
  • date of publication
  • page numbers of entire article
  • page numbers cited
  • if found online: database or website through which article was accessed
  • if found online: URL
  • if found online: DOI (digital object identifier: this is an alphanumeric code that some publications use because it is more stable than a URL)


  • author(s)
  • title of page
  • title of site
  • URL
  • date published (if available)
  • date accessed


  • name of artist
  • title of work
  • media (e.g., oil on canvas)
  • date work was created
  • dimensions of work (e.g., 36 x 48 inches)
  • if in a museum: institution, city, and state/country where work is displayed
  • if online: name of database, date of access, URL or image ID

Citations in Practice

Once you have all this information, your next task is to figure out how to organize it into a citation.


Most often, there are two places where you’ll have to use your citation data–once in the paper itself, and once in the bibliography/works cited page.

Taking the building blocks of information noted above, arrange them according to the architecture of your chosen citation style. Say, for instance, that you’re writing about the famous opening line of Moby-Dick. You’ve written down the quotation, “Call me Ishmael,” and gathered the following building blocks:

  • author: Herman Melville
  • title: Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale
  • publisher: Penguin Books
  • year of publication: 2001

If you’re citing in MLA style, the standard format for most research in literature, cultural studies, and history, your bibliographic entry would take the following form (assume that you’ve already cited the appropriate page number within your essay). Pay attention to the spacing and punctuation: in addition to the content itself, these are important elements of accurate citations.

Last name, First name. Title of Book. Edited by [editor], Publisher, Publication Date.

Plugging in the specific information you have, it would look like this:

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale. Penguin Books, 2001.

Now, let’s look at how these building blocks would get rearranged if you were preparing a bibliography in Chicago style, another frequently used format for humanities research. The basic format is:

Last name, First name. Book Title. City: Publisher, year of publication.

As you can see, the citation for Moby-Dick would look similar in Chicago format:

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

The third most common citation format, APA, is more frequently used in the social sciences and hard sciences, but you can cite a novel in it, too. The basic format is this:

Last name, First initial of first name. (Year published). Title. City, state: Publisher


Melville, H. (2001) Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale.  New York, New York: Penguin Books.



We know a lot of people use citation generators like or the “Cite this” button in the U-M Library Catalog. Our goal isn’t to discourage those—they can be helpful tools. But it’s important to cross-check those citations because tools that automatically generate citations don’t always do so reliably. By understanding how citation works, you can check your citations to make sure they’re correct, or cite by hand more accurately.