Monday, May 11, 2020

Methodology Monday-Source Citations

Genealogical Proof Standard Element 2-Complete Source Citations

For many of us, crafting source citation is the  most intimidating part of the Genealogical Proof Standard, Thinking about them can make even the most seasoned genealogist squirm.

Why Do We Need Citations?
First, let’s look at why we need to be able to create a citation for each source we use. Properly recording the records, books, webpages or microfilms that we have used to identify and place individuals on our family trees not only helps us to not duplicate research, but will let others know that we value and take seriously the work we are doing.

Preventing Duplicate Work
There’s not much more frustrating than not being able to find a record you have used to identify an individual on your family tree. Let’s face it. We’ve all done it. Have you ever wanted to return to a previously found record and seen something like this “found on the 1910 Census”? No mention of where you found it. What a waste of time to have to go back and look for it again. 

Research Credibility
The citing of sources shows the researcher has done the work to ensure they can show where they found the information for each fact. It also allows others who are viewing those facts to be able to retrace the researcher’s steps in order to see for themselves if they come to the same conclusion.  Many online trees, published works, and family websites have wonderful information but no sources mentioned or citations given. Have you ever sent a letter or emailed someone to see where they got their information only to be told they had no idea? A good researcher uses a properly cited source. It helps all of us,

How to Create Source Citations
Now that we’ve talked about why we should take the time to cite those sources, let’s talk about how.
It can seem very intimidating until you understand what is needed.
In his book, Mastering Genealogical Proof[1], by Tom W. Jones, gives five questions that our citations should answer.
1-Who- the name of the author, creator or person who gave the information
2-What-the title of the source.
3-When-the publication date, the record date. We can also use an estimated date or n.d. if the source is not dated. The date of an online search should be recorded as well.
4-Where in? Where in the source is the record located? These can be a volume or page number, if unpublished the person or persons of interest, or state how in the record the item can be found such as in alphabetical order.
5-Where is the source? The location of the repository with film or file number, collection, etc. should be included. Publication information should also be included when applicable.

Sound complicated? Actually, once you get the hang of it, it’s not that bad. It’s an art form and with practice it won’t take much time at all to craft a good source citation.

1850 Sumter County, SC Census
William J. Dorrity Family

Here’s an example from an 1850 Census Record:
1850 U.S. census, Sumter District, South Carolina, population schedule, p. 38A (printed), dwelling 1151, family 1151, Wm Dorrity: digital images, Ancestry ( accessed 09 May 2020); citing NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 414.
This shows:
Who-Sumter District, South Carolina

What-US Census
Where in -page with dwelling and family numbers
Where is- Ancestry citing NARA films

Cite What You See
 Always cite the record you are viewing. Are you looking at an original or a digitized image? A book or a canned version? Which website are you on etc. Why does this matter? Because each content provider scans and indexes their information differently. Sometimes images on one site are better than another. If you are looking at FamilySearch for instance and then add the source information for the same census record on Ancestry, you or someone else looking at your work may have a hard time locating the exact record. Once again causing time to be wasted. So always cite the actual record you are looking at.

Tips for Creating Citations

  Study Evidence Explained [2] by Elizabeth Shown Mills. Begin with reading chapters 1 and 2. These will explain the importance of citing your sources. It includes templates for just about any type of record,

  Create citations using the template in a computer software program. Many of the Genealogy Computer programs include fill in the blank forms that will produce good, quality citations. Try to learn as you input information into the boxes. What information is asked for? It's a good way to practice so that when you are at a library, archives, or another repository, you will be able to create your sources as you go.

  Take online classes, watch webinars, and attend conference sessions on citations. There are blog posts and articles on learning the best way to write them.

  Make a Citation Template on Excel, Evernote, or another platform that you like.  As you create your citations add them to the template. The next time you need to cite a similar source, all you have to do is fill in the blanks.       

  Here's an example for the 1850 Census record mentioned above.  Having this template helps each time a citation is needed for that census.

[Year] U.S. census, [County] County, [State], population schedule, [City], Enumeration District [ED] ___, p. ____ [(penned) or (stamped)], dwelling ____, family ___, [name]: digital images, Ancestry ( accessed [date]); from National Archives microfilm publication __, roll ___, image ____.

Fill in the information and you have your citation. This saves time and as you use your template it will become second nature. The format for each type of record will become understandable. Pretty soon you may not need to use it at all and can create citations on your own.

Using Source Information from a Website
Can’t I just copy and paste the source information included with the record provided online?  Online record repositories like Ancestry and FamilySearch are getting better about giving full citations.  Before you copy and paste, take a look and evaluate based on the Who, What, When, Where is and Where in approach. Remember that image numbers and the location of record groups on a web site often change over time. There are also times when a record is no longer available on the web site you got it from. A complete source citation is important to help you find the record again should either of these things happen.

Beginner Mistakes
When I began my genealogy journey over 30 years ago, the importance of adding those source citations -a proper citation-was foreign to me. Many records were never sourced.  Are there still some in my database that are not cited correctly? You bet! But, I am working on it. The most important thing is that I learned from my mistakes and try hard to create the citation as I research. Sometimes, as we all do, I get on a roll online and am an hour into searching online when I step back and realize I am finding records, but not citing them as I should. Or, I get so excited at a repository that I neglect going through the steps that I know I ought to and come out with an incomplete citation. I am working hard to make those incidences fewer and be committed to doing quality work by adding those citations, for each record, every time.

It's More Than A Trail
As you go through the steps of producing a good trail back to the records you have used to document your family, you will be taking a closer look at what records you have collected. Thinking about a document and where and when it was created and by whom will help you to understand the quality of the source. Is it reliable? Was is it made at the time of the event or years later. Who may have given the information it contains and is there a chance that the informant may have been mistaken? Why was it made? All of these questions are a part of the analysis that we should do for every source we find. The process of creating the citation and adding all the proper elements will help us do that. If we don’t create those citations, we may inadvertently miss something and come to the wrong conclusions about our ancestors.

The second element of the Genealogical Proof Standard, Citing Sources, will help to support our research, proof arguments and make sure our current thinking and conclusions are sound. To answer the question. Source Citations-Do I really have to?
Yes, yes, you really do!

Thanks so much for stopping by!
Helping you climb your family tree,

[1] Jones, Thomas W. Mastering Genealogical Proof. Arlington, VA: National Genealogical Society, 2013.

[2] Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub., 2007. Print.


  1. This was really interesting and helpful. I'm saving the link to this post! Thanks!

  2. Cheri - terrific explanation and useful example - yes you really have to!

  3. This was great, when I started working on my family tree I never thought about source citations and know I am having to go back and search for records to add them to my tree.

    1. It's something most of us end up having to do! Thanks so much for reading and leaving a comment!

  4. Great explanation, Cheri! Like you, I'm still sorting through evidence I found 30+ years ago but neglected to write even the simplest source for (not even a bread crumb). To make things worse, I inherited my aunt's 40+ years' of research... but not her sources. She did the old school method of numbering a record and recording the numbers in a master source list, and unfortunately, that list seems to be lost. Now I have to try to re-find everything and give it a source citation. So in addition to writing your citation, be sure to avoid "source separation" and find a reliable way to keep the source with the evidence!