"What evidence do you have to prove that Grandpa was born on 18 April 1912?" If you have properly cited your genealogy sources, you know exactly what evidence supports the date of birth for your grandfather.
While family historians strive to build their family tree correctly, managing sources is not the fun part of genealogy. So what is a researcher to do?
Base Your Genealogy Facts on Sources
Whenever I discuss history, politics, religion, or science with my homeschooled children, I often say, "What sources are you using?"
This resolved many fights when we compare our sources. We may review the same supporting evidence and come up with different conclusions. Still, we can't have a reasonable discussion unless we know how terms are defined and what input we're evaluating.
In genealogy research, facts without supporting evidence are fiction.
As much as I love the Poldark Series by Winston Graham, the family tree for Ross Poldark and Demelza Carne, included in the front of his books, are fabricated. The only source material for the lineage resides in Mr. Graham's mind.
Unless you want to be related to the fictionalized versions of Ross, Elizabeth, George, and so on, you must provide a source for the facts in your family tree.
Three Additional Benefits of Genealogy Citations
Keeping a running list or attaching sources in your family tree programs offers three benefits.
First, citing your sources helps you know where you are in the research process, so you can pick up where you left off.
Second, when you have conflicting information from separate documents, your source citations can help you quickly access and compare your documents.
Third, as you begin writing family histories, a list of your source material will make writing a well-sourced story a cinch.
Insight from Trace professional researchers Cyndi Harlin, Cathy Hong, and Ericka Grizzard:
"Citations tell the reader the specific details of where a piece of information was found, down to the page, line, or paragraph. Not only do they provide the location for each fact, but they also help in the evaluation of the reliability of the evidence. Therefore, well-crafted citations are absolutely crucial if your work is to be looked upon as valid and having integrity."
How many of us want our research to be valid and have integrity?
I'm raising my hand.
Why Don't People Like Source Citations?
If you've read Andy's book How to Fail English with Style, you know he's not a fan of doing unnecessary work, particularly when it comes to writing research papers.
Mind you. He references parts, materials, NERC code, and various scholarly studies in his reports for his day job. However, engineers often follow a simple motto when dealing with their citations - KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID.
When I started doing genealogy research in college, I heard about citing sources at local family history classes. For the most part, I used a paper copy of the MLA handbook for my college papers. This nifty 146-page book covered how to craft a proper source citation and how to format a paper.
Through my years as a genealogy research student, writer, and now educator, I've seen many family historians become overwhelmed when they pick up a copy of the 892-page Evidence Explained (in its third edition), which focuses on the theory and the templates for a variety of historical sources.
This book attempts to take the stress out of source citations by helping researchers know what to cite. Perhaps it has, but the vast majority of the newbie and even intermediate researchers opt for skipping this step of the genealogy research process.
Truthfully, I feel this way on many, many occasions.
And I'm in good company with folks who admit to disliking source citations. Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady, laughs as she admits, "I am one of those! LOL!"
And yet, I can hear some of my beloved colleagues lovingly remind me to track my sources. They say -
"Get over not writing citations. 😉" Notice Eric Well's, of Legacy Left Right, use of the wink emoji!
"Do it anyway!" gently nudges Amie Bowser Tennant, The Genealogy Reporter.
If you're a citation hater (or disliked), then there is hope for you.
This video talks about genealogy source citations made easier.
The Basics of a Good Genealogy Citation
According to Trace researchers, the five the most important elements of a citation to keep in mind are:
Who was the creator of the information (author, editor, entity, etc.)?
What is the name or title of the source?
When was the record created or published?
How can the specific fact be located within the larger collection (page, book, folder, etc.)
Where is the source located (archive, repository, website?)
Cyndi, Cathy, and Ericka advise that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “I’ll write it later,” or just using a URL. This is how information gets lost. If you write a citation while the information is still fresh in your mind, then you know exactly where a source can be found, and it will be much easier to track down again."
Now, SOME of you have watched my Write With Me series on Facebook. You'll notice that I will use a URL during the drafting phase of writing a family history. I don't think they're discrediting that process. But, I have to go back and correct my citations as soon as I complete my rough drafts.
Do you need help from professional genealogists to help you to find verifiable documents and information anywhere in the world? Use this link to get a $50 discount off your initial deposit when you set up a project with Trace.
Citation Practices for Paper Genealogists
If you track your citations in files and folders, you will want to write a source citation on a photocopy of the books and materials you consult. For example, if you're using Family Group Sheets, you'll write the citations on the back of the pages. Or you can keep a running list of citations used in a genealogy binder.
Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady, suggests we "don't worry about if the source information is written according to source citation rules. Instead, write down as much as you need to so that if a stranger looked at the source, they could go find it themselves."
Let's go a step further. Write down what you need so YOU can find your resource again. Thus, if you want to write - top left drawer of the genealogy filing cabinet in the Epperson Family File, go for it!
Templates Make Genealogy Source Citations Easy
I love the genealogy hack that Peggy Clemens Lauritzen recommends. "Create a template that can be copied/pasted, then fill in the information."
Now, you can use these templates for paper or online genealogy research. For example, when I created a four-generation report for my mother's cousin Geraldine Rang, a source template came in extremely handy. I didn't have to keep track of various website links or my dog-eared copy of Evidence Explained at the ready.
I used the template linked below and copied the example that I needed. Then, I switched out the bracketed [ ] portions of the citation for the specific details relevant to my research. And Viola! I had a citation.
Do you want to use my citation template to speed up your research process? Then, sign up for the FHF free newsletter and receive the free guide spreadsheet of "Genealogy Source Citation Templates" that you can use in Google Sheets or MS Excel now.
Citation Practices for Digital Genealogists
If you're leveraging the power of a computer to track your ancestry, you have many resources to simplify the genealogy source citation process.
As many of you know, I'm an advocate of using online trees at FamilySearch, Ancestry, Findmypast, MyHeritage, and WikiTree. The primary reason for the first four platforms is that when I find a record on these genealogy websites, I can attach them to my family tree.
Badda bing. Badda boom.
Now, Drew Smith, of the Genealogy Guys podcast, goes a step further. He recommends we "look to see if the online site provides a citation that can be copied into genealogy software."
Amen. Amen! For most people who don't like citations, this tip from Drew is P-E-R-F-E-C-T.
Thus far, I have found Find A Grave, FamilySearch, and Ancestry have the easiest to find sources citations. However, many researchers argue they don't live up to some professional genealogy citation standards.
But remember the goal of the citations. If these quick access citations make it easy for you and a stranger to find the record, then it's good enough for hobby researchers.
If you're submitting a report to BCG or ICAPGEN, you're going to have to do extra work, but at least it's a starting point.
Another hack I hadn't thought up comes from my friend, the amazing Thomas MacEntee, Genealogy Bargains.
"Save the online record (or scan to a digital image) and use a naming structure that approximates a source citation. So for US World War, I Draft Registration Card for my great-grandfather Ralph Austin located on Ancestry and that I accessed on March 15, 2021, this is the name I would use: AUSTIN John Ralph US WWI Draft Reg Card from Ancestry on 20210315."
I'll be honest, I keep my digital file names much more simplified, but I think some of you will find this trick really useful.
Use Citation Generators
Ultimately, I would love to copy a URL and drop it into a widget and out pops the citation. That would definitely achieve the goal of genealogy source citations made easy.
If I'm crafting citations for books, magazines, journals, and articles, and these resources are online, then the freemium website Citation Machine has me covered. Most professional genealogists prefer the Chicago style of citations, which is an option on this website.
Other genealogy resources that I know are not as simple as copying and pasting a URL, but they come close. For example, if you have the RootsMagic, Legacy, or Family Tree Maker programs, they have built-in source citation templates.
All you have to do is complete a standard form, and the programs handle the rest.
If you don't have these programs, you can pay about $15/annually for a web version of the form-based citation generator called Genealogy Citation Builder.
↪️ Are you new to genealogy? Grab your copy of this FREE Beginner Guide:
Feel Free to Develop Your Own Citation System
You may still not find the suggestions above helpful. In that case, follow this advice from Miles Meyer,
"Develop your own source citation methodology if you don't want to do the official source citation. But remember that the source citation helps you find the source again in the future. So make sure it is replicable, and others can follow the citation to find the source."
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A reference for all blog posts and videos mentioned in the YouTube episode.