Document Your Findings

Gathering facts about your family and assembling them into a family tree is quite an accomplishment, but it is the backing up of these facts with sources that gives your research credibility. Keeping track of where you found each piece of information or statement of fact is important as a means for others to evaluate or verify your work. It also allows you to easily go back again and again, to remember where your information came from, or to confirm its reliability in your own mind.

To do this, genealogists use what is called a source citation. The source is the document, database, photograph, interview, or other record in which the specific fact or information was found. The citation is the formal reference to that source, including all details necessary for someone to identify and locate the source material.

Source citations in genealogy generally follow standard bibliographic citation standards, similar to those found in The Chicago Manual of Style. A good rule of thumb is to work from general to specific.

  • Author or compiler (the person who created the content)

  • Title of the source (book, website, and so on)

  • Publication details (place, publisher, and date)

  • Specific details needed to locate the information within the source (page number, chapter, entry, and so on)

Internet sources generally follow the same format as traditional published materials. A website title, for example, is equivalent to a book title. A database contained within a specific website can be treated as a book chapter. The publisher is the entity that owns or created the website, although this can be omitted if it duplicates the name of the website, as it does with Ancestry.com.

In place of traditional publication place and date, you cite the URL of the website and the date on which you accessed or viewed the site. The additional details necessary for a footnote citation would include the information necessary to find the actual record, such as the individual's name and location and the entry number.

A footnote source citation for a World War I Draft Registration Card found online at Ancestry.com might appear as follows:

“World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918,” digital images, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com: accessed 13 December 2010), card for Claude Mancil Crisp, no. 2927, Edgecombe County, North Carolina; citing World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918, National Archives microfilm publication M1509, imaged from Family History Library film roll 1765639.

Sources will use slightly different punctuation and arrangement depending on how they are used — footnote, bibliography, or inline. The above example is a bit complicated since it references digital images, but it also fairly represents many of the genealogical databases accessed online.

Learn more about how to structure source citations in the highly regarded book by Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Second Edition. For quick reference help with citing online databases, check out her laminated “QuickSheet” pamphlets. Both the book and QuickSheets are available from the publisher, Genealogical.com, as well as other booksellers.

Cite what you see! Many of the sources you'll be using online, such as indexes, pedigree charts, and cemetery transcriptions, have been created or “derived” from a previously existing source. While such a derivative source may include a citation to the original source of the information, you must cite what you actually “see” or use — the derivative source, not the original from which it was created.

This is because derivative sources are prone to human error, including typing mistakes and misinterpreted handwriting. If such a mistake exists and you cite the original source without reference to the online derivative source where you actually found your information, others will assume that the error is yours.

Consider a situation where you locate your great-grandmother's birth date from a transcription made and posted online by the local genealogical society. In this case, you would not cite her tombstone and/or the cemetery as your source because you have not personally seen her grave marker. Instead, you would cite the online transcription created by the genealogical society.

Many people don't take the time to cite sources when they first begin researching their family tree. It's just so easy to assume that all of your data is accurate, so why does it matter where it came from? It's also easy to get caught up in the excitement of the search and tell yourself that you'll go back and do it later. Problems arise, however, when you find new information that contradicts your previously “accurate” data.

Without sources, you have no way to know where you found the earlier information, which makes it difficult to resolve the discrepancy. Documenting sources for all information as it is uncovered can save many, many hours of backtracking. Source citations really are worth the extra time and effort!

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