How often have you come home from a research trip with a fistful of photocopies, only to realize you have no recollection of the source you copied from? You can and you should record your sources, and it’s not as complicated as you might think. The goal is to document your research effectively so others can retrace your steps, find the sources you used, and hopefully reach the same conclusions.
The Genealogical Proof Standard requires “complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item contributing—directly, indirectly, or negatively—to answers about that identity, relationship, event, or situation.” Citing your sources is a must—but it needn’t be intimidating or difficult. Here are some tips to get you started.
First, a “rule of thumb.” Any statement of fact that is not “general knowledge” requires a source citation. That means anything specific that you record about your ancestor—dates, events, locations, must be tied to where you found your information. You will also document negative searches and conclusions you reach based on indirect evidence from more than one source.
Include source citations (also called source notes or reference notes) at all levels of the research process: in your research plan and log, on the photocopies or transcriptions you make, in your genealogical software and family charts, and in your final, written work, whether you publish or not.
During your research, you consult three basic types of sources. All require source citations:
- Original—not derived from a prior written or visual record. Examples: federal or state records, courthouse records, unpublished manuscripts, photographs
- Derivative—copied, transcribed, abstracted, summarized, duplicated or repeated from a previously existing source. Examples: indexes, databases. These should be considered finding aids to lead you to the original source, but occasionally the derivative is the only surviving copy.
- Authored work—presents an author’s conclusions and interpretations of multiple sources. Examples: books, magazines, websites, blogs.
Regardless of the type of source, there are basic elements to include in your source notes. It helps to think like a reporter and ask yourself the following:
Who is the creator of the source?
The creator may be an author, editor, or compiler, or an authorizing governmental agency.
What is the title of the source or how might it be described?
Titles of published works, such as books or websites, are italicized. Publication information is cited parenthetically, and includes the place, publisher and date of publication. Websites include the URL and date of access. Unpublished manuscripts or articles within a larger work, are set in quotation marks. If you are using government records, you may need to assign a descriptive term or label.
Where within the source did you find the information? This “internal locator” is very specific.
Necessary elements may include volume and page numbers. Unpaginated works require logical locators—entry numbers, individual names, dates.
Where did you access the source?
Published works such as books and websites are widely available—the publication information or URL is adequate for someone else to access the same material. Original records are unique and require the physical location, such as the courthouse office and county seat. If you view microfilm, include information about who filmed the records: Family History Library? National Archives? Local government? Include series and/or roll numbers.
Arrange these elements in a logical sequence, from largest (creator, title), to most specific (internal locators). Access information is usually arranged from most specific to broadest location. Write it all out as one long sentence, separating elements with commas and semicolons. If you need to add a special note about the source, such as the handwriting was difficult to read, or pages were missing, include that in a separate sentence:
Creator, Title/descriptor, Publication information, Internal locators; Access information. Special notes.
Let’s work through the basic steps together.
Example: I found Josiah Martin in the 1840 census on Ancestry.com.
- Creator: the U.S. government authorized the census
- Title/descriptor: 1840 U.S. census, Perry County, Ohio, population schedule
- Publication information: none, this is an original record
- Internal locator: Monroe Township, page 145, line 9, Josiah Martin
- Access information: digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 February 2012). Ancestry has digitized microfilm originally published by the National Archives and Records Administration, series M704, roll 419.
Put it all together:
1840 U.S. census, Perry County, Ohio, population schedule, Monroe Township, page 145, line 9, Josiah Martin; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 February 2012); citing National Archives microfilm publication M704, roll 419.
Example: I found the Jacob Moon’s Will on microfilm.
- Creator: Berkeley County, West Virginia
- Title/descriptor: Will Book volume 3, 1796 – 1805
- Publication information: none, this is an original record
- Internal locator: page 622, Will of Jacob Moon, dated 2 May 1804
- Access information: The original is at the Clerk of Court’s Office, Martinsburg. I viewed it on Family History Library microfilm, roll 831,170.
My source note looks like this:
Berkeley County, West Virginia, Will Book, 3:622, Will of Jacob Moon (1804); Clerk of Court’s Office, Martinsburg; FHL microfilm 831,170.
Example: I found Nancy Catcott in an online database.
- Creator: The website states that Sharon Wolf transcribed the records
- Title/descriptor: “Van Buren County Iowa Old Age Pension Tax List.” This is set in quotations because it is part of a larger work. The website title is italicized: IAGenWeb Project.
- Publication information: http://iavanburen.org/oldage : 2014
- Internal locator: entry for Nancy Catcott, birthplace Libertyville, 11 October 1879
- Access information: database, IAGenWeb Project (http://iavanburen.org/oldage/ : accessed 14 October 2014)
The final reference note looks like this:
Sharon Wolf, transcriber, “Van Buren County, Iowa Old Age Pension Tax List,” database, IAGenWeb Project (http://iavanburen.org/oldage/ : accessed 14 October 2014), entry for Nancy Catcott, birthplace Libertyville, 11 October 1879.
Example: I found information about John Richart in a local history.
- Creator: the compiler is Luther B. Hill
- Title/descriptor: History of Benton County, Iowa, From Materials in the Public Archives, the Iowa Historical Society’s Collection, the Newspapers and data of personal interview; also containing sketches of representative men, 2 vols.
- Publication information: Chicago: Lewis Publishing, no date of publication given
- Internal locators: I found John on page 404 of volume 1
- Access information: This is a published book and widely available. The publication information is sufficient for another researcher to locate a copy of the book.
Here’s how the citation looks:
Luther B. Hill, compiler, History of Benton County, Iowa, From Materials in the Public Archives, the Iowa Historical Society’s Collection, the Newspapers and data of personal interview; also containing sketches of representative men, 2 vols. (Chicago: Lewis Publishing, n.d.), 1:404.
Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, has stated that source citation is “an art, not a science.” If you include all the basic elements for your sources and present them in a logical, consistent style, you’re on your way to well-documented, genealogically sound, research results.
- Board for Certification of Genealogists. Genealogy Standards, 50th Anniversary Edition (Washington, DC: Turner Publishing Co., 2014),1.
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007), 41.
Learn More About Source Citation:
Board for Certification of Genealogists. Genealogy Standards, 50th Anniversary Edition. Washington, DC:Turner Publishing Co., 2014.
Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Mills, Elizabeth. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007.
Mills, Elizabeth. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997.
Mills, Elizabeth. QuickSheet: Citing Online African-American Historical Resources Evidence! Style. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2010.
Mills, Elizabeth. QuickSheet: Citing Online Historical Resources Evidence! Style. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2005.
Mills, Elizabeth. QuickSheet: Citing Ancestry.com Databases & Images. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009.
Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. 8th ed. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2013.