Citing Sources

One thing that genealogists need to do is to always cite their sources. I well remember my early days of family tree searches. I would record new information into three-ring notebooks. (This was long before the invention of the personal computer.) I would write down names, dates, places, and perhaps a bit more information that I was lucky enough to find.

Unfortunately, in those early days I did not write down where I obtained the information. Nobody told me that I needed to do this, and I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out for myself. I simply assumed that everything I found was accurate. After all, it was printed in a book, wasn’t it?

As time passed, I frequently found new information that contradicted what I found earlier. When I discovered these discrepancies, I needed to determine which piece of information was more accurate. The question that arose time and again was, “Where did I find that information?” Sadly, I often did not know.

The better solution would have been to always write down where I found the information along with the data itself. This is known as citing your sources. To quote author Elizabeth Shown Mills in her excellent book, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian: “Any statement of fact that is not common knowledge must carry its own individual statement of source. …Source notes have two purposes: to record the specific location of each piece of data and to record details that affect the use or evaluation of that data.”

I am older now and, hopefully, wiser. I have spent many, many hours weeding out incorrect data, and now hopefully I have documented all my sources of information. I wish that someone had told me years ago about the need for source citations; that one step would have saved me many, many hours of backtracking. I hope that, by writing this article, I can influence some genealogy newcomers to have better habits than I did.

Of course, citing a source is not as simple as writing down the name of a book. You also should record the book’s author, publication date, the page on which you found the data, and even the name of the library or other repository where you found that book. Serious genealogists will also record the library’s call number.

Of course, not all genealogy information is found in books. You also find information in hand-written records in courthouses, as well as in family Bibles, on microfilm, on Web pages, in e-mail, and other places. Each source of information may have unique requirements for recording the source references.

My favorite reference for finding out how to record genealogy sources is the book I mentioned earlier: Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997, ISBN#: 0806315431, available from the publisher at http://www.genealogical.com/item_detail.asp?ID=3846 as well as from Amazon at http://goo.gl/7uX1Fb.

Elizabeth Shown Mills also has released a shortened QuickSheet: Citing Online Historical Sources available from the publisher at http://goo.gl/YD2BPl as well as from Amazon at http://goo.gl/oN7Ptr. This, too, is a big help.

If you or someone you know is in the early stages of their genealogy quest, I urge you to start recording your sources according to the guidelines of such excellent works as these. The more time passes, the happier you will be that you did so.

21 Comments

Fantastic article. I’ve been guilty of not noting my sources too – but i’ve cleaned up my act. Always good to have a reminder though. Thank you – and good to learn of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ quicksheet version too – i’d missed that.

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I am 68 years old. I actually still have the notes I took during interviews and when I was 16 years old, and began this journey. I have scraps with sources from decades before computers. I knew one day I would need them, and indeed, I was able to enter these notes and sources after I got my first PAF program and began the process of entering the ! and the time and dates of my findings. It delights me today to know some of my facts came from direct intervies and travels nearly five decades ago. Happy Hunting. Regina

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For a more in-depth discussion of source citations, also consider Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, also by Elizabeth Shown Mills. I have the 2nd Edition, which was first published in 2009 by Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, Maryland. It is a massive tome of 885 pages.

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The description of your earliest genealogical searching could well be a description of my own. I didnt think back in 1969 that anyone could possibly be interested in this unheard of hobby of mine! I’m still backtracking now!

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I haven’t used any guide to source citing but this looks like it is the official word from the BCG [Board for Certification of Genealogists]:

http://legacy.familytreewebinars.com/genealogy-standards-50th-anniversary-edition-2014-p384.php

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The below book appears to be the “official” word on citing references from the BCG [Board for Certification of Genealogists]:

http://legacy.familytreewebinars.com/genealogy-standards-50th-anniversary-edition-2014-p384.php

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If a mother tells me that her son was born on such and such a date, I use her as my source. Am I expected to go look up his birth certificate to get proof or is her word accurate enough?

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I leave information that is wrong as alternate facts in my database, with the source and a comment/explanation about why I believe it to be wrong. I place a similar comment in the correct fact, also sourced, and pointing to the wrong fact. It eliminates the likelihood that I’ll run across the same wrong fact again and have to reprocess the information again. Or if I share my data and someone says “What about X?” I have a ready reply to something I may not have thought about in years. If I find additional information for the wrong fact I have the option to “reopen” the issue for reevaluation.

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Ah, the same rookie mistake I made. Our genealogy society stresses–and I do mean stresses—to all “newbies” to CITE YOUR SOURCES! Great advice Mr. Eastman!

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David Paul Davenport July 15, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Always bear in mind that the purpose of the citation is to allow researchers to verify information. As such it is crucial that the location of the original document be detailed and that the precise location of the “fact” be identified. For example, it never ceases to amaze me that patrons at “my” local Family History Center, cite “Family Search” as a source, and sometimes include the FHL microfim number, but these are not complete citations. This is equivalent to writing “book in Library.” We need to know what book, the author, title, publisher, place of publication, page number and adding the call number of the book provides clarity. And although citing the URL of an intenet source may be the wave of the future there is no guarantee that these sources will continue to exist. Many times I have clicked on a hyperlink and gotten an error message, viz. “the page no longer exists.” As a result I am now doing screen captures of my sources, and placing these in an appendix to my reports.

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I always download a pdf or jpg of any document I find online.

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For the past ten years, I’ve always either downloaded or photographed the front, title and copyright page of the source, together with the information I’m gathering. But my real problem is that, in the early computer days, I relied on the computer to always keep my sources safe. Upgrading and changing software has meant that more than a few sources just note the source number (1 or 2 etc) and then NOTHING. It’s so infuriating!!! And my memory just isn’t good enough to track them down!!

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I wish I had recorded sources when I first took up family genealogy. But I learned the hard way. It not only applies to genealogy it also is important for any article of photo we record.

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Thorough citation is not the black and white question that you and most of those who have commented seem to believe.

The type and extent of citations you describe remind me of that necessary for a PhD dissertation. I’m not quite convinced that the stuff we write demands that level of scholarship.

I note, also, that most history books, even the best ones, unless specifically aimed at professional historians, have few, if any, citations. I call my books Family Histories; why do FAMILY histories have to have citations when other acceptable histories don’t?

Another problem with citing everything is that it could double the size of any genealogy book. Still another is that requiring such demanding citations would probably scare off many potential authors, at least some of whom, maybe most, would have something valuable to contribute to the genealogical literature.

A question above asks if a mother’s word is not a good enough citation? I’ll extend that question to other family members; e.g., if a child remembers when a sibling was born, is that not good enough? Many people may know, or even be present, when a person marries or dies; is their word not good enough? How about a mature person’s knowledge of their own parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles, even close cousins whose birthday parties they’ve been attending for years.

If one reads a written genealogy that is fully cited, can that genealogy be used as a citation, or does one have to go back and locate the original citation in order to use it?

I’ll close with the observation that censuses should never be cited because of their numerous errors. Even official documents such as birth certificates (mine, for example) and death certificates (my late wife’s, for example) can contain errors. Citing such documents, or preferring them over personal knowledge, would only perpetuate the errors. And we don’t want to do that!

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    An extension of this philosophy would be, isn’t a person’s knowledge about himself good enough? My grandfather always listed his birthplace as Penn Yan, Yates Co., NY. He said that the family was so large that they used the County Park for their family get-togethers every summer. I spent several days in the basement of the courthouse in Penn Yan, looking for evidence of anyone in the county with his surname. I didn’t find even one individual. Several decades later, I found that he was actually born in the neighboring county, which did abound with his family.

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    There are always exceptions, as in the case you cited. But my birth certificate is wrong (name), and my wife’s death certificate is wrong (cause of death). Our family members know the difference, so their word is more accurate than the official records. I suspect this is true in many cases now and, especially, in the past.

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Actually, for most commonly cited sources, in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register we use simpler sources than in Evidence Explained.
If you go to AmericanAncestors.org and look under “Register” you’ll eventually get to our list of common forms of citations.
Some of the most common errors people make is italicizing titles that are not published, putting the publisher before the place of publication, and putting the surname of the author before the given names.

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Consider the source of the information. It may be accurate (an eyewitness) or it may be inaccurate (19th century biographical sketches written by the subjects for a price). Even an eyewitness may be doubtful: how long ago did the event occur, how good is the person’s memory, is there any reason to not be truthful?
No memory is as clear as faded ink. (Chinese proverb)

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And no faded ink is as clear as freshly printed evidence. (Microsoft proverb!)

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Some facts are more significant than others when you’re telling a story, but if one has a note of a source, which is not absolutely reliable, the fact may still serve the intended purpose without going wasting time in further research. If later, more accuracy is needed, you can be a judge of that and revisit the question, as long as you always grade the data for quality.

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Alleen-Marie Coke July 31, 2014 at 11:40 am

When listing sources, I try to elaborate when there are apparent errors. My own birth certificate has NO first name, as my family couldn’t decide on what it should be. I had hoped for some official verification when the 1930 census was released, but, unfortunately, I was born a few weeks after it was taken. The 1940 census lists me as a male, son of my parents (I am female, and have been for 84 years). Hopefully, I’ll live long enough to do a check on the 1950 census. I recall giving this information myself, so there shouldn’t be any mistakes, but who knows??? I understand that a mechanism exists at the Government , whereby a person can request a correction of census information. Any ideas as to how to do this???

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