A source citation tells you where you found the information. You remember those papers you wrote in college and high school and all the footnotes you wrote? Yep. Those things.
I know what you are thinking…Really? Seriously? You expect me to do that for my family tree? Yes.
- So you can find the information again if you need it
- So you can evaluate the quality of the information when you have conflicting evidence
So you can find it
Have you ever found an important document that proves that you’ve been trying to prove for the longest time? You add the fact to your tree and you just know you are going to remember where it came from? How could you not? This one is important! And then you go back months later and wondered where you got it from?
I know I’ve seen the death record for my great great grandparent’s first child. He was born a few months after they were married. He died as an infant. I suspect he was the reason they had to get married. (Gasp! That never happened in the 1800’s did it?!) I have the date recorded. Do you think I can find the document? I cannot. Do you think I remember the book I saw that in? I do not. Ask any experienced genealogist if they have a story like that from their early research days. I bet they do. Or else they are hyper organized and don’t have piles of genealogy papers in their house somewhere. And you probably don’t want to know them anyway.
So you know how good the information is
Let’s say you have three different birth dates for your ancestor. How can you assess which one is correct?
- Death certificate
- 1920 Census
None of those would be definitive. But you can look at the informant on the Death Certificate and make a judgment on how well the informant knew the deceased. You have no idea who supplied the information on the 1920 census, so it is supporting evidence at best. The SSDI is probably based on the SSN application, and was probably supplied by the person in question. But they could have lied or maybe the birth date was recorded incorrectly.
But if you know where information comes from and who supplied it, then you can make a judgment on how accurate the information might be. And this will help you when you have conflicting pieces of information. And we all have those!
Learn more about sourcing and writing citations
- Citing Your Sources Can Be Fun! (Ancestry Anne)
- Sourcing Your Vitals – Citations for Birth, Marriage and Death Records (Ancestry Anne)
- Sourcing Information Not on Ancestry.com (Ancestry Anne)
- Source Citations: They’re Not As Hard As You Think (Amy Johnson Crow)
And no discussion of Sourcing is complete without mentioning Elizabeth Shown Mills authoritative book on sourcing: Evidence Explained. And check out her site EvidenceExplained.com for Quick Lessons and Forums.
About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.