For 26 weeks I will take you on a family history journey through the alphabet, one letter at a time. I have decided that each post will be educational in nature, focusing on topics related to resources, methodology, tools, etc. Although the challenge is complete, there are still some people who are finishing up and Alona, the host, is encouraging others to participate anyway. Additional information on the challenge, can be found at Take the ‘Family History Through the Alphabet’ Challenge.
This week I’d like to talk about citations and their importance in genealogy and family history research. This post is not going to be a crash course in how to cite your sources. It’s going to be more about the reasons why you should cite your sources, even if you are just a casual genealogist.
In Evidence Explained, Elizabeth Shown Mills defines citations as “statements in which we identify our source or sources for a particular assertion.”1 In other words, when we state a “fact” or draw a “conclusion,” we need to reference the source(s) that led us to that fact or conclusion. For example, if we are looking at a 1900 census that lists a person of interest residing in Chicago, Illinois, that census should be cited as a source for residence fact/event.
Truth be told, when I first started out, I didn’t cite a darn thing. I borrowed from this or that tree, entered data from compiled genealogies, and stripped the facts from records I had in my possession. When I started, I just wanted to know how the heck I was related to Noah Webster (the father of the dictionary) and that was it. I was on a mission and I really didn’t care how I got the answer…I just wanted an answer.
Then I learned about a little thing called a citation. This term was not foreign to me as writing and research were a part of my by-day profession. But for some reason, I never thought to connect that concept with genealogy. So I began to create “citations” in my handy-dandy genealogy program. This was before these programs had source writing capabilities based off of Evidence Explained, which at the time I was also oblivious to. And wouldn’t you know, I wasn’t doing it right.
I’m not talking about structure, or putting commas in the right place. I mean flat-out, my “citations” didn’t deserve such a term and unfortunately, these crap-tations are still floating around in my database). I’m serious…they were crap. I mean “US Census,” seriously? Sure, I could look at a residence event and figure out which year and place, but beyond that, I had no other identifying information for the census record. My favorite crap-tation has got to be “Relative’s Obituary.” That narrows it down, doesn’t it? And the more I struggled with trying to figure out what record a crap-tation referred, the more I realized that there had to be a better way.
Enter Evidence Explained, the “preferred” method of citing sources in genealogy-land. Boy did it make a heck of a difference. As I update those crap-tations periodically, still to this day, I pull out my hair trying to figure which of the five known dead relatives this “Relative’s Obituary” refers to. I basically had to do the research all over, which in many cases meant re-finding the source and this time obtaining a copy (digital or hardcopy). The frustration of this ongoing task makes me write proper and coherent citations at the time I enter any data into my database or documents I’m using for evidence analysis purposes. My sad story alone should be enough to encourage you to start out on the right foot from the beginning (or start now and fix periodically). But if it hasn’t, I have a few more reasons why it’s important to cite your sources.
As I mentioned earlier, when it comes to citing sources, Evidence Explained is considered the go-to resource for handling the structure of a citation related to genealogy research. But, it’s not so much about what element goes where and if you use a comma or semi-colon; it’s more about recording enough information about the source to 1) enable others to evaluate the information for themselves, and 2) enable others (and you!) to locate the source. Let’s look at those two reasons, which will illustrate why citations are important.
Enable Others to Evaluate the Information for Themselves
If you prepare a research article or case study, a book, a website, an online family tree, or even if you just share part of your genealogy database with other researchers, others need to know where you got your information so they can evaluate your assertions. For example, I’m a little leery of research that only uses derivative sources, such as indexes and abstracts. This is not to say that these resources are poor quality, but the chance of introducing errors during the indexing or abstracting process is high. And to be quite frank, these are really considered finding aids to locate the original record. Granted, sometimes tracking down the original is difficult for various reasons, but you should always try secure it whenever possible.
Additionally, especially when an index is used as a source, there is a greater chance of snatching up the wrong person. Typically, indexes do not contain enough information to help discern whether you have the right person or not (heck, sometimes the actual record doesn’t contain enough information either!). So mistaken identity tends to happen when only indexes are consulted.
And before you ask, yes, I myself have cited an index as a resource (and still do under certain circumstances). Depending on the index, if I feel comfortable that I have the right person, I will put the information in my database and cite the index. But I also include in the citation notes the finding information, such as volume/page number or certificate number (as an FYI for me, but I suppose it’s helpful to others). I also add a to-do item to my list to obtain the original. I cite the index because sometimes I just don’t have access to or the money for the records at that point in time, as I’m sure many of you can relate. I only do this for what I consider “less critical” research, where I’m not particularly focused on a specific person but some of their details are helpful with the research of someone I am focused on. If I do become focused on the person, or find that their information is crucial to furthering my research of someone else, then I begin to seek out the originals. And since I’ve created to-do items that tell me where to get the record and how to locate it, it’s a fairly painless task.
So now that I’ve written a side post about indexes, let me get back to the point. People need to be able to see what sources you have used for a particular fact/event so they can evaluate for themselves whether they agree with your assertion or feel that additional research may be needed. If they see a census index being used instead of the actual census record, they may agree with the assertion to an extent, but they may want to follow up themselves with a thorough investigation of the actual census records. The other reason it’s important for people to see what sources you have used is so they can go to the original to have a look for themselves and/or obtain a copy for their own files. This of course leads into the next topic…
Enable Others (and You!) to Locate the Source
Many researchers will want to view and/or obtain a copy of the source themselves. This is not because they don’t trust you, it’s just that they want to give due diligence to their own research. They want to be able to review the source(s) and draw their own conclusions.
In other instances, the focus of your research may be on one particular individual, while another researcher is interested in a sibling or another family member. So they may want to consult the sources you used in order to see what information they might find on the individual they are researching.
And, as I explained in my personal story earlier, you want to be able to find the record again for yourself. There may be times when you forgot to make a copy of a record or you’ve simply lost or misplaced a record. If you recorded a citation, you will have no problem obtaining that record again. But if you didn’t record the source, you may have to traipse through databases, digital images, card catalogs, or finding aids to track down that record again. For example, let’s say I lost the death certificate for my great-grandfather. When I look at my list of citation for his death event/fact, I can see that I had gotten the death certificate at the Illinois State Archives, and I even know the death certificate number and which film it was on. No problem. I can get that record again, and I didn’t have to search indexes to find the information and then figure out where I could obtain the record—everything was already recorded.
I hope that you can see why it’s important to record your sources, even if you’re just doing genealogy for fun. Even before I got serious about my research, I had put my tree on Ancestry as a private tree. I would get emails asking about this person or that person and I had to write back and tell them that I have some information but I have no idea where it came from or if it was even correct…that was embarrassing. Not only was it embarrassing, I felt terrible that they had wasted their time emailing me and I couldn’t help them. So, beginner or not, citations are one concept I hope you’ll take to heart. I promise it will be beneficial to you and others in the long run.
For more information on citing your sources, as well as evidence analysis, I encourage you to purchase a copy of Mill’s book Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (yes, it’s pricey, but it’s well worth it). You can save a little money and purchase the electronic version (I personally like the hard copy, I’ve got notes written all over it and sticky-tabs sticking out from every which way! But whatever floats your boat, or your pocketbook.) And don’t forget to check out the Evidence Explained website for more tips—you can even participate in the very-active forum and ask and answer questions related to citations, evidence analysis, and records.
1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007), 42.