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, http://www.genealogical.com/item_detail.asp?ID=3846.
Elizabeth Shown Mills also has released a shortened QuickSheet: Citing Online Historical Sources that I reviewed at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2007/05/quicksheet_citi.html. This, too, is a big help.
An online Web site also gives excellent information about sources. Duke University’s Guide to Library Research Web site includes an item entitled Assembling a List of Works Cited in Your Paper. These Web pages contain a wealth of information about citing articles in books, magazine, journals, letters, personal interviews, and more. It is an excellent reference, although not aimed at the genealogist. The downside is that it does not provide specific information about citing census records, land records, or other genealogy-specific sources of information.
While not as complete as Mills’ book, the Assembling a List of Works Cited in Your Paper still provides information that every genealogist should know. You can read it at: http://www.lib.duke.edu/libguide/works_cited
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.