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, and we see a few, 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. Or we actually don’t understand how to create them. Or 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 paper (and now electronic) chaos of five or ten years later down the road.
Then one day, it happens to us: We see a death date we have recorded in Family Tree Maker for Uncle Bob and honestly 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.
My first few years of research were indeed 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 very simple example of how understanding source citations allow for better research analysis and conclusions. 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 (http://www.ancestry/search/: accessed 4 May 2011) entry for Batty Merryman, 24 January 1868, Spokane; citing “Tennessee State Marriages, 1780-2002, microfilm, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.”
The citation above makes it clear that the document was reviewed from a database on Ancestry. Shown below is the image itself (I have clipped just my ancestor’s info):
The transcriber has recorded the couple’s names as “Batty Merryman” and “Martha Barb.” But I’ve learned to be 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.
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 that image:
Getting to the original source now reveals the surname of my 3rd great-grandmother: Martha Bailey.
This is one small example of the power of source citations when you understand to use and read them accurately. You will know where that information came from and you can then try to find other places or sources (or just a clearer copy) for the information.
Three of my top reasons to diligently cite our sources:
1) We (and others) need to know exactly what sources we are basing our research on, and where we got those sources from.
2) We want to draw the most accurate conclusions, which can only be judged from the breadth, depth and accuracy of our sources.
3) We often invest decades of our lives to this quest; we want our life’s work to be considered credible.
Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book Evidence Explained (and website) is the Bible for creating genealogical source citations for good reason. Not only is it organized beautifully into categories of sources, Ms. Mills meticulously and clearly explains the why, what and how for each and every kind of source. I also highly recommend visiting the website above; she hosts a forum where genealogists answer questions about source citations, which I have made use of many times.
My personal process is to record all of the information needed for a proper source citation as I am researching. Usually every few months or so, I write-up the research on that line or person or whatever I was researching, and I have Ms. Mills’ book beside me. I turn each and every fact I uncovered into a proper source citation.
It takes a lot of time to do citations. But the payoff is incredible, and well-worth it.
P.S.: I wrote about this subject back in 2009 and that post is still a good read.