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Cite Your Sources!

    If my experience at recent lectures is any indication, there are a lot of new people beginning their genealogical journey.   That’s exciting!  TV programs, news broadcasts and newspapers seem to be writing more often about finding your roots.  Adopted children are searching for birth parents and hardly a week goes by when one of the news programs doesn’t talk about the importance of knowing your family health history.  Then there is DNA and ethnicity (or what’s know as admixture): for some who see the ads on TV that’s all they want to know…where did I come from?  If you talk to people who think that this information is rock solid, I suggest they read Judy Russell’s blog, “Admixture: not soup yet.

    It’s a great time to be starting  your journey.  Those of us who have been searching for more than 10-15 years remember that there was research before the  Internet and it required us to travel to archives, courthouses, the local Family History Center.  All of our census research was done off microfilm using soundex or printed indexes.  It’s important to remember that you can’t do all of your research online, but today, it’s the way most people are introduced to genealogy.

    It still amazes me when I hear the newbies talk about finding their entire family tree online...back to the 1500s, to royalty or to Adam and Eve (yes, there are some online genealogies with such purported claims)!  One thing you will quickly find is that most of the genealogies or trees online do not include sources…that makes the information only a clue and you need to find the documentation to verify the accuracy.   (And no, quantity doesn’t count on the Internet...just because you found one date in five places and another date in only three, five doesn’t win!  It just means that the information has been copied...right or wrong.)

    So today’s focus is on Rule two of the Genealogical Proof Standard…Complete and accurate citations to all sources.  

    If you ask a professional genealogist what advise they wish they had been given at the beginning, nine out of ten will say, “cite your sources.”  All of us (if we ever get a chance to work on our own families again) will tell you that we have information in our databases from our newbie days and have no idea where the information came from.  And here’s something you can take to the WILL find conflicting information, whether it is online, in books or in original sources (my father-in-law’s surname is spelled wrong on his birth certificate).  If you don’t know the source of the information, how can you evaluate it?  Was it original or derivative?  Was the information primary or secondary? If you’re not familiar with these terms, I’ll discuss them next week in Evidence Analysis.

    When I realized that sources were important, I purchased a copy of Richard Lackey’s Cite  Your Sources: A Manual for Documenting Family Histories and Genealogical Records.  Published in 1985, it was considered THE resource.  Then came Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian in 1997.  This compact 124 page book is the book no genealogist or family historian should be without.  Elizabeth often says that citation is an art, not a science, but this book will set you on the right course when citing sources.  When you find information, make sure you know were it came from: the title, author, editor or compiler, the publisher, volume, page, the repository…whatever information you need to make sure you can find it again.  Since so much of what we use today is online, add the website, URL and the original source, but remember that URLs come and go.  Two of the most popular online databases, and give you the source information, including the original source, which you can copy into your database.  Most genealogy software has templates to help you format the information, and some like RootsMagic, base their source templates on Elizabeth’s books.  I wouldn’t be so concerned about where the commas and semi-colons go, just capture the information…you can always put the information into your notes field and format it later.  When I’m adding things to my online Tree, I will copy the source into the description field.   

   Two of the main purposes for source citations are so other researchers can find your source and review it, and so you can evaluate information that may conflict.  Let’s say you finally find the date of birth for your pesky ancestor in an online tree and the source given in the tree is a vital record.  The source in your database must be the Family Tree (citing the owner of the tree and its location) until you personally obtain a copy of the original record.  If you have not seen the original, you can’t source it; you only source what you have reviewed.  Each piece of information in your genealogical database (name, date, event, location, family story, etc.) should have a source citation, maybe even multiple citations (you might find a date in one record and a location in another record).  I sometimes have five or more citations for a single piece of information which may or may not agree.  When I resolve the conflicting information I will add a note or proof summary stating which source I feel is correct and the reason which will stand unless (or until) new information comes to light.  Remember from last week, rule one of the Genealogical Proof Standard is a reasonably exhaustive search!    

    Elizabeth has also published three editions (2007, 2009 and 2015) of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace.  This book is a whopping 885 pages and close to three pounds (but the good news is that is also available for Kindle).  It is a superb book, but may be overkill if you’re starting out.  Your library should have a copy if you need to refer to it.  

    Finally there are a few “Quick Sheets,” four page laminated sheets which are simple reference guides.  I’ve listed below the information on each of these resources which can be purchased online or off.

    So, take the advice of this genealogist and start off on the right foot.  Whether you are using genealogical software, an online tree or just a word processor, Cite Your Sources.

    Happy Hunting!


Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1997.

_______. Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2007.

______. QuickSheet: Citing Online Historical Resources, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2007. 

______. QuickSheet: Citing® Databases & Images, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2010.

______, Your Stripped-bare Guide to Citing Sources (Quicksheet), Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2014.

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2018