If it were illegal to be a genealogist and you were being charged in court as being one, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Would they be able to present the jury with substantial proof of your family history and genealogy prowess to mark you guilty as charged or would there be only circumstantial evidence at best?
Thankfully, it isn’t illegal to be a genealogist or family historian. But, let’s say for a minute it is. Citing your sources could stand as pretty great evidence showing you knew exactly what you were doing!
We know the real crime is when genealogists choose not to cite their sources.
Citing Your Sources in Genealogy: Why do we do it?
Sources or citations are like the footnotes you included in a high school history report. They are the backbone to sound and trustworthy research and we use them in genealogy, too.
For every genealogical fact, a source should be noted. The source (aka citation) tells the reader where the genealogist got their information and how reputable that source is. Sources can be vital records, digital images of records, books, websites, and a million other things.
Genealogists and family historians cite their sources:
- To give others confidence in the research
- To save time later
- To more accurately weigh the evidence to draw a sound conclusion
How Do We Start Citing Sources for Genealogy?
Ideally, you have already been creating some sort of source citation as you went along in your quest for filling out that family tree. Or, maybe you took excellent notes as you worked and you can quickly go back and determine where the information for a certain fact originated. Unfortunately, you may have started doing genealogy like me, as a fun hobby, and did not know you should be writing “that stuff” down.
So now what? When I started over, I consulted the top resource for genealogy citations. Elizabeth Shown Mills literally wrote the book on the how’s and why’s of sourcing. Her book entitled Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace Third Edition can be purchased in hardback form or in its new digital form. There is also a website for further guidance. As a rather new genealogist, this book may be overwhelming to you. If so, here are some suggestions!
- Start by going back to the very beginning of your pedigree chart.
- If you haven’t already, put your family tree into a genealogy software program like RootsMagic. It will make citing sources much easier. You can even download a FREE version here. [Don’t know how to transfer your online tree at Ancestry over to a computer software program like RootsMagic? No problem, read here.]
- Review each fact and add a source for it. Let me be more specific. If you have entered in that your grandma was born on 2 Oct 1912, then you need a source citation for how you knew that was her birth date. If you have entered in that your aunt and uncle were married on 4 Apr 1973 in Winslow, Arizona, then you need a source for how you knew the date and place of their marriage.
“I don’t even know what a source citation looks like,” you say? If you got Grandma’s birth date from a family Bible, then your source citation might be as simple as this:
Family Bible held by (name the person who owns the Bible), viewed by me on 2 Feb 1980, (Grandma’s name as it is written in the Bible), born 2 Oct 1912.
If you found her birth record online at FamilySearch, your source citation is already written out for you! You will see that I have highlighted it in a yellow square in the image below.
After you have gone through every individual and every vital event has at least one source citation (though I prefer 2 or 3 sources), you will want to be more careful in the future to keep source citations as you go along.
Professional and serious genealogists use the format of citation originated by Elizabeth Shown Mills in her book Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace Third Edition as I mentioned above. Within this volume are included QuickCheck Models which are examples of how to source nearly anything you could possibly imagine.
Let’s see some examples. A source citation for a census record online at Ancestry.com for Leonard Cron would look like this:
1900 U.S. Federal Census, Piqua, Miami, Ohio, population schedule, ED91, sheet 3A (penned), page 134 (stamped), dwelling 54, family 58, Leonard Cron; digital image, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 16 May 2014); NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 1305.
A death record found online at FamilySearch.org for William E. Partington may look like this:
“Ohio, Death, 1908-1953,” digital image, FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org : accessed 20 Dec 2014), William E. Partington, 11 May 1937; citing Clinton, Shelby, Ohio death records and FHL microfilm 2,023,498.
You won’t likely be brought up on charges for being a genealogist, but if you are, I hope they have loads of evidence to convict you! Cite your sources! It’s easy if you collect your source citations as you go along. You will save yourself valuable time and your work will be greatly appreciated through the generations.
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Great post. I’m currently teaching a beginner’s course for family history and this week we did citations. I’m going to send the link for this post to my students.
I’d also like to add that another great books for serious genealogists is Ian Macdonald’s Referencing for Genealogists: sources and citation – he’s a Scottish professional genealogist who tutors at The University of Strathclyde in their genealogy programme. Very useful book for those of us with UK ancestors. My citations are a unique amalgam of his method with ESM’s from EE.