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Cite Your Genealogy Sources

A Guide to Documenting Your Genealogy Research

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Woman at table looking at genealogical tree
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You've been researching your family for a while and have managed to correctly assemble many pieces of the puzzle. You've entered the names and dates found in census records, land records, military records, etc. But can you tell me exactly where you found great, great-grandma's birth date? Was it on her tombstone? In a book at the library? In the 1860 census on Ancestry.com?

When researching your family it is very important that you keep track of every piece of information. This is important both as a means of verifying or "proving" your data and also as a way for you or other researchers to go back to that source when future research leads to information which conflicts with your original assumption. In genealogy research, any statement of fact, whether it is a birth date or an ancestor's surname, must carry its own individual source.

Source citations in genealogy serve to:

  • let others know on which records you based your facts (did the birth date you have for your great-grandmother come from a published family history, a tombstone or a birth certificate?)

  • assist others in evaluating your research (if you were lucky enough to find a complete family tree for your grandfather on the Internet, wouldn't you want to know where the information came from?)

  • provide a reference in cases where a newly found fact appears to conflict with previous assumptions

  • help you to go easily go back to a previously used source when you realize you may have missed information or you have found new details which may lead to more information from that source

In other words, properly citing your sources leaves a big audit trail for others to follow, letting them know what documents you looked at, so they can judge your family tree connections and assumptions for themselves. In conjunction with research logs, proper source documentation also makes it much easier to pick up where you left off with your genealogy research after time spent focusing on other things.

Types of Genealogy Sources
When evaluating and documenting the sources used to establish your family tree connections, it is important to understand the different types of sources.

  • Original vs. Derivative Sources
    Referring to the provenance of the record, original sources are records that contribute written, oral, or visual information not derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from another written or oral record. Derivative sources are, by their definition, records which have been derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from previously existing sources. Original evidence usually carries more weight than derivative evidence.
Within each source, whether original or derivative, there are also two different types of information:
  • Primary vs. Secondary Information
    Referring to the quality of the information contained within a particular record, primary information comes from records created at or near the time of an event with information contributed by a person who had reasonably close knowledge of the event. Secondary information, by contrast, is information found in records created a significant amount of time after an event occurred or contributed by a person who was not present at the event. Primary information usually carries more weight than secondary information.

Two Rules for Great Source Citations

Rule One - Follow the Formula - While there is no scientific formula for citing every type of source, a good rule of thumb is to work from general to specific:

  1. Author - the one who authored the book, provided the interview, or wrote the letter

  2. Title - if it is an article, then the title of the article, followed by the title of the periodical

  3. Publication Details
    • place of publication, name of publisher and date of publication, written in parentheses (Place: Publisher, Date)
    • volume, issue and page numbers for periodicals
    • series and roll or item number for microfilm

  4. Where You Found It - repository name and location, Web site name and URL, cemetery name and location, etc.

  5. Specific Details - page number, entry number and date, date you viewed a Web site, etc.

Rule Two: Cite What You See - Whenever in your genealogical research you use a derivative source instead of the real thing, you must take care to cite the index, database or book that you used, and NOT the actual source from which the derivative source was created. This is because derivative sources are several steps removed from the original, opening up the door for errors, including:

  • handwriting interpretation errors
  • microfilm viewing errors (out of focus, back side bleeding through, etc.)
  • transcription errors (skipping lines, transposing numbers, etc.)
  • typing errors, etc.
Even if a fellow researcher tells you that they found such and such a date in a marriage record, you should cite the researcher as the source of information (noting as well where they found the information). You can only accurately cite the marriage record if you have viewed it for yourself.

Next Page > Source Citation Examples A to Z

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