Genealogical Mistake #1 – Unsourced Citations

When you’re just starting your genealogical research it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of climbing your family tree.  You’re searching things online, you’ve made a few trips to libraries and archives, and maybe you’ve even spent a few hours in the dusty basement of a courthouse.  And each time you make photocopies and you recount your adventures to your interested family members.  But what happens when you go back to all that research months later and you’re ready to start on another research question?

You’ve forgotten where you found all of that information.

Citation, Citation, Citation

It’s OK, it happens to all of us.  It’s happened to me, and it will probably happen again.  That’s why it’s so important to cite your sources!  You might think that citations were just for those college papers that you wrote so long ago, but really they’re the most important part of your genealogical research.  They give you and anyone who follows your research a link back to the repositories and records where you found the evidence and facts.

Your citations don’t have to be textbook perfect, but they should at least include the date that you viewed the record, where you found it, and the volume (if applicable) and page number.  And write the citation immediately after you photocopy the records so you don’t forget!  If you’re copying out of published genealogies or a book of indexes, abstracts or transcriptions, spend the extra dime or quarter and copy the title page of the book.  With the title page, you’ll always have a reference back to that book and the publication information; you’ll still need to write the date you found it and where you were… but the rest of the information is already cited for you!

And what’s also incredibly important is that you come home from your research trips and attach that source information to your ancestors in your genealogy software.  I’m horrible about this task.  I get all excited about what I’ve found, I make my citations on the backs of all my photocopies, I come home and… and all the papers get tossed into my filing drawers. The info never makes it into my RootsMagic tree.  Don’t follow my example… transfer the information to your software!  When you start to ask questions about what to research next, having those source citations in your software will help keep you on track, prevent you from researching the same thing twice, and it will give you a clearer picture of the holes that you still have in your research.

Examples of Citations

I’ve pulled a couple of images from my files to show you what I’m talking about.

example of a quick citation on the title page of a book photocopyExample #1

The first example is of a quick citation that I made on the title page of a book that I photocopied.  I just wrote down a quick notation about the date and the repository.  All the other information that I could want to know is contained on the title page and the verso page.

In a footnote this little citation would become:

Gregory A. Boyd J.D., Family Maps of Union Parish, Louisiana: Homesteads Edition (Norman, Oklahoma: Arphax Publishing Co., 2005), 73, 76.


citation made by a librarian on the reverse of a photocopyExample #2

The second example is from a document that I requested be copied by a librarian.  A thorough librarian will provide the citation for you on the reverse of the document.

In a footnote, this citation would become:

Obituary, The Barnesville Gazette, 29 May 1890, Obituary of Joseph H. Slade.

For the Serious Geni

If you’re interested in a more formal approach to source citations, Elizabeth Shown Mills’s Evidence Explained [affiliate link] is one of the most complete compendiums of source citations for genealogists out there.  It is considered to be the reference for sourcing genealogical records. I won’t lie… it’s a tome.  At nearly 900 pages it’s not something that you can take around easily to the different research repositories so that you’ll always know exactly which citation pattern to use, but it’s a very handy book for your personal library.

And you’re in luck!  For today only (that’s 30 March 2012), is offering this book at a 40% discount!  That’s right… today you can purchase Evidence Explained for just $35.95!!  That’s a steal I wouldn’t pass up… I paid full price for my copy.

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