Citations: the importance of citing your sources

by Debbie Mieszala, CGSM

Introduction

The thrill of finding new documents and following research trails they suggest does not come without a caution. Gathering towering mounds of papers that mention ancestors is fun and rewarding. Novice genealogists have the luxury of remembering, to a degree, where they found most items. In time, the sheer volume of records causes the memory to fog. Suddenly, two copies of the same 1930 census are on file. Three different birthdates for a great-grandmother are on the family tree, but where each date came from is unclear, making it hard to determine which is most likely accurate. Perhaps a cousin asks why Aunt Peaches is listed as Mabel. As experience level grows, so does the desire to fully analyze and evaluate each document to understand where it leads and the value of its contents. Gathering documents is only one part of the research process. Analysis is another. Where information came from must be known to accurately and fully analyze its quality and veracity.

Genealogy Citations - The Basics

Everyone has seen an old newspaper clipping that has no source written on it. What newspaper did it come from? When was it printed? Might other items in that newspaper hold valuable information? It is frustrating, especially when something vague like “she died Sunday” was written. Which Sunday? What month, day, and year? In what place did the event occur? There is a problem with the clipping – it has no obvious provenance, because the item has been removed from its whole. Short of finding the article in a newspaper to further identify it, the genealogist has incomplete information. The clipping is nice, but what remains unknown creates limitations.

When sources are gathered, an effort to record where they came from should be made. A source citation must be added to each document, and to each fact added to family tree software, or handwritten family group sheets. Source citations allow more complete evaluation of information items.

Evidence evaluation is more than evaluating facts on a document. The document or series of documents need to be considered. The reasons they were produced and the people who created them influenced content and accuracy. Was there a language or literacy barrier? Other variables to evaluate include laws and customs, how the record was kept, the quality of materials used, and language and handwriting. How to evaluate those if where the document came from is unknown?

Some genealogists incorrectly think it sufficient to list a source as simply as “census” or “family member”. Those simple citations will raise questions later. It is best to source-cite correctly and completely early in a genealogical research project. It saves time later, as a good citation will not require the genealogist to go back for additional citation information.

But why? And how?

Good analysis starts with a complete picture, including where information came from.  If one source is more trustworthy than another, it matters greatly when conflicting information, like great-grandmother’s many birth dates, is found. Some documents list events that occurred near the time the record was created, and decades prior. Time separating an event and when it was recorded it is important to consider, since distance can promote error. Evaluating reliability of a source is essential.

Citing genealogical sources on documents and evidence items allow anyone to locate that source. Not just the genealogist that gathered it. Anyone. A fellow genealogist. The editor reviewing an article. Your most genealogically-challenged family member. And you, when that stack of formerly-memorable documents reaches a dizzying height.

Source citations allow genealogists to critically analyze the work of others. Cited sources are reviewed to see if interpretations are accurate and how well conclusions hold up. When conflicting data is found sources must be revisited to sort out which evidence is most compelling. To gain credibility with other genealogists and in the field, use source citations to back up conclusions and hard work.

What needs a source citation? Any fact that is not common knowledge needs a source citation; that is standard.

The basics of creating a source citation are simple. Anyone can do it. Topical references help, especially when source-citing more unique items. Add source citations to documents and facts in a database. It saves time in the end, and forms groundwork for good genealogical conclusions.

A source citation has several components. Think of them as an address for the document. Consider information needed to identify and locate the item again.

What is it? Who created it? When was it created? Where was it found? If the resource is potentially transitory, like a website, include the URL and the date viewed. 

For an obituary found in a newspaper, a genealogy citation might look like this:

Mabel Cream obituary, The (Coastal Flats) Maine Daily Fog, 16 September 1964, p. 6, col. 8.

The citation indicates 1) what: Mabel Cream obituary, and 2) who created it and where found: The (Coastal Flats) Maine Daily Fog, and 3) when published and further location detail: 16 September 1964, p. 6, col. 8.

When an obituary is found online, a URL is included. The source citation might look like thiis:
Mabel Cream obituary, The Maine Daily Fog, 16 September 1964, online archives (http://www.dailyfog.com/1964_spt_16_obits : accessed 4 July 2009), p. 6, col. 8.

The citation indicates 1) what: Mabel Cream obituary, and 2) who created it and where found: The Maine Daily Fog, and 3) when published: 16 September 1964, and 4) how and when accessed and further location detail: online archives, (http://www.dailyfog.com/1964_spt_16_obits : accessed 4 July 2009), p. 6, col. 8.

Now anyone can locate and evaluate the obituary.

This citation should accompany any fact gleaned from the obituary that is added to a database or written work. It should be added to the face of the document itself, in the margin. It can be hand-written, or added with a printer for a more professional look. When on the document face, the source citation is duplicated when the obituary is copied and shared, thus allowing recipients to better analyze the source and properly cite their resulting work. A source citation keeps Mabel Cream’s obituary from becoming like that old undocumented newspaper clipping found in home records.

To create a citation for an item like the undated news clipping, consider citation elements like what it is, who created and published it and when, where found, and how it was accessed. Indicate the clipping is undated and from an unknown newspaper in the source citation. That it was kept in a family Bible in the genealogist’s possession indicates where it was found and how accessed.

Source citations are a must when doing client research. Ask for source citations from librarians, hired researchers, or genealogists that you trade research with.

Two books are essential to learning more about writing accurate and complete genealogy citations. They cover many records genealogists commonly use. Both were written by Elizabeth Shown Mills. The first, with an overview of the reasons for and uses of source citations, including examples, is Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997). The second book, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007), is newer and expands greatly on the topic of source citation, with numerous examples.

Conclusion

Source citation is important for analysis, and to help anyone locate an item. It is impossible to remember where every fact or piece of paper came from. Take pride in research efforts. Citing genealogy sources demonstrate that documentation backs up work, while allowing others to follow a research trail and evaluate conclusions. Make source citation a good habit, and it will soon be second nature to dress up each document with a unique address.