Sometimes it can seem as if there is a civil war going on in the genealogical community. After we start researching our families, at some point we hear about the necessity of source citations.
Once we figure out exactly what they are, some of us think, “That looks complicated. I don’t have time to do all that.”
Or we know we need to do them, and just never get around to it. Maybe we don’t understand how to create them. People disagree on the format. Some think it’s just for those “high and mighty” oh-so-serious researchers.
When someone asks where we got a piece of information, we think saying “the 1930 census” should be sufficient.
We honestly believe we will be able to remember where we got everything. We don’t foresee the chaos of five or ten years later down the road.
No Sources, No Idea
Then one day, it happens to us: we see a death date we have recorded in Family Tree Maker for Uncle Bob and have no idea where we got it from. We check a record at a library only to realize we’ve already checked that record. Oh dear.
How many times has that happened to you?
My first few years of research were spent in the fog of not knowing about and not understanding source citations. Critical pieces of my early research have incomplete or missing sources.
Let me give just one example of how understanding source citations allow for better research analysis. I use this example in my class to illustrate the value of citations as well as the importance of examining original sources.
This is a source citation to the marriage of my 3rd great-grandfather, whose full name is Baltimore Merriman:
“Tennessee State Marriages, 1780-2002,” database and images, Ancestry.com : accessed 4 May 2011) entry for Batty Merryman, 24 January 1868; citing Tennessee State Marriages, 1780-2002, microfilm [unnumbered], Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.
The citation above makes it clear that the document came from Ancestry:
The couple’s names are transcribed Batty Merryman and Martha Barb. But I’m a diligent researcher. When inspecting the actual image, the first name Martha cannot actually be seen, nor can any of her surname.
You can sort of make out the “M” but not anything else. Clearly there is water damage in the image, but the transcribed marriage date itself appears to be accurate (2nd image above).
But I’m certainly not going to use this unknown transcriber’s interpretation of Baltimore’s wife’s name when I can’t see it myself. The quality of the source matters.
Now, let’s look at another source citation for the same information–the marriage of Baltimore Merriman:
Hardin County, Tennessee, Marriage Records, Vol 1: 106, Balty Merryman to Martha Bailey, 24 January 1868; County Clerk’s Office, Savannah.
This citation tells me the information came from the Hardin County, Tennessee courthouse. And take a look at the image:
Getting to the original source now reveals the surname of my 3rd great-grandmother: Martha Bailey.
My family history would have been inaccurate had I simply accepted the transcriber’s rendering of Martha’s surname as Barb.
Why We Cite Our Sources
This is one small example of the usefulness of source citations when you understand them. It isn’t just that you know where the information came from. It’s that it will help to determine whether a piece of family history is simply fiction, or based upon solid research.
Three of my top reasons to diligently cite our sources:
1) We (and others) need to know what sources our research is based on, where we got those sources from, and their quality.
2) We want to draw the most accurate conclusions, which can only be judged from the breadth, depth and accuracy of our sources, and
3) We often invest decades of our lives to this quest; we want our life’s work to be considered credible.
Learning How to Properly Cite Sources
Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book Evidence Explained is one valuable resource in understanding and using source citations. Not only is it organized beautifully, Ms. Mills meticulously explains the why, what and how for many kinds of sources.
(Update, 2018: Thomas Jones’ book, Mastering Genealogical Documentation is also highly recommended. It is in the style of a workbook.)
My personal process is to record all of the information I need for a proper source citation as I am researching. Usually every few months or so, I document my research. I have Ms. Mills’ (and Mr. Jones) books beside me. Then I write my source citations.
It takes a lot of time to do citations. But the payoff is incredible, and well-worth it.
My readers, what has your path to source citations looked like?
P.S.: I wrote about this subject back in 2009 and that post is still a good read.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.