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Advanced Research Tip: Always Cite Your Sources and What does that Mean Anyway?

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.

Two reasons:

  • 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

image16Have 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
  • SSDI

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

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.

Happy Searching!

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.

15 comments

Comments
1 Kyle BradleyOctober 25, 2013 at 11:52 am

Thanks for the wake up refresher and the reminder to keep up with my fact- sourcing! Too many times I either get caught up in excitement over the long awaited find and in my haste, do not source properly or, on the flip side, when plodding through the mundane records such as 21 years worth of city directories at the same address that I get lazy and careless. Either way, I needed the prod I got from your Blog article! Kyle B.

2 Ancestry AnneOctober 25, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Glad you enjoyed it Kyle! And I know what you mean about City Directories :-)

3 Pat in DallasOctober 25, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Don’t forget the probate records, which I have found to be amazingly accurate, and often times match a Death Certificate.

Other than a CG, what qualifies a person to be an “advanced genealogist”???

Great Blog!

4 Ancestry AnneOctober 25, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Pat in Dallas, you are right, probate records are great sources AND usually, not always, are fairly accurate. People get serious when money is involved. :-)

You don’t need to be a CG to be an advanced genealogist. I think anyone who wants to get it right and is always trying to learn is an advanced genealogist!

5 FHC LibrarianOctober 25, 2013 at 3:10 pm

When I started doing research, I picked up where my mother left off. Her sources were practically non-existant. I believed what she had done was true and accurate. No one told me how to do genealogy. There were few reference books, but did I want to read those long boring chapters? No, I wanted to find ancestors—-now!

I also went through a period of “Oh, I’ll remember that!” When it came to sources. Yeah–right!

After a few years with the explosion of popularity of genealogy, I realized I didn’t remember where I got most everything. At the same time, I found my mother had followed an incorrect line. I had to discard 4 generations!

It was then I fully realized what I had to do. Personal computers were being used and I purchased my first program and my first computer, an Apple 2C with no hard disk. It was all I could afford. Later after discarding the apple because at work I was using a real computer with a “huge” 40 Meg hard disk, I got rid of the Apple. Later I purchased Family Tree Maker put out by Banner Blue at a cost of $60. It was on 5 and ¼ floppy diskettes. I was able to buy a computer which cost $1,200 and had MS-DOS. Later came the Windows programs and the Internet. Everyone knows the story, computer hard disks and programs got bigger and prices went down.

After all these shocks and lessons learned, I realized I had to go back and add source documentation. I became much better at that and eventually became a FHC librarian. I learned more all the time. Helping “newbies” and patrons use the computer and how to do their research taught me more. I never stopped learning as I got into other areas and other time frames.

I also learned what a “brick wall” was and was determined to knock them down. In many cases, easier said than done. I always told the new patrons after lengthy instructions, “If you don’t remember anything I’ve said, please remember one thing, “Document your sources. I promise you, you will be glad if you do and you will forget many of them if you don’t.”

This blog should be read before folks start their long journey to find their ancestors.

6 Ancestry AnneOctober 25, 2013 at 3:39 pm

FHC librarian, I loved reading your comment and identified with much of it. I didn’t think about the reason: Because someone else is hopefully pick up your research. Excellent. :-)

7 MaryOctober 25, 2013 at 4:25 pm

I have obtained death certificates and marriage certificates from different states for several ancestors. Is it okay to scan these and put them on Ancestry.com as pictures?

8 Ancestry AnneOctober 25, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Mary, if you obtained them from the state or county itself, that is fine.

If you got them from another subscription site, you should check their terms of service.

9 MichaelOctober 26, 2013 at 12:28 am

It would be great if Ancestry.com gave us improved resources for this – specifically for records where relatives are mentioned, but not indexed. Naturalization documents in particular can have lots of great information about spouse and children, but no easy way (at least no way I have found) to link that record to both the referenced, non-indexed person and the particular facts that the document supports. I could cite my sources even better if Ancestry.com gave me that flexibility – or if I knew how to access the flexibility that may already be there. Thanks!

10 PuidwenOctober 26, 2013 at 3:57 am

I think anyone properly train in citations would throw a fit if they ever saw mine, but i do, do it for the second reason they mentioned. So i can tell what’s good hard fact.

11 Paul K. Graham, CG, AGOctober 26, 2013 at 9:54 am

Another important reason to cite sources is so that *other people* can evaluate the evidence you used and make a better decision about whether they need to repeat the research. When people see that you use quality sources, they give your work more credibility.

Have you seen an Ancestry member tree where all the sources are other member trees (poor quality)? Then, have you seen another tree for the same family with numerous links to censuses, death certificates, marriage records, military records, and grave markers (high quality)? The one citing other trees requires us to re-research and find the original sources. The one with sources allows us to quickly verify that the documents were interpreted correctly, but we don’t have to spend the time trying to find them.

12 Leana RosentraterOctober 26, 2013 at 11:47 am

to #9 Michael, here are the complicated instructions for adding sources to a person on your tree without them being indexed–
if you have found a source like a book or a history that mentions your ancestor here are the steps– 1st open a new ancestry.com tab– 2nd go to search on this 2nd open tab (not your tree) the search on the homepage-click on card catalog down at the bottom –3rd copy and paste the name of the book or resource from your 1st open ancestry tab onto the space in your search that says “TITLE” do not put it in the keyword space (copy from the white part of your 1st open tab not the subchapter of your resource that is in the black part of the page) –4th when the search comes up open the book by clicking on the results (they will be highlighted in green on the right) –5th go back to your 1st tab where you found your ancestor and look at the page number NOT ancestory’s indexed page number at the bottom but the true page number on the page–insert that into the search on your 2nd open tab then click the button exact next to the page number you have entered and that will be the page you need now indexed–save this to your person on your tree from the 2nd open tab–
if you need to save this record to more than one person click on it after you have added it to the 1st person (click on it from their homepage) and it will be indexed so you can–after it is opened again save it to your second person–if you need the next page in a series you will have to run an exact page number search on the next page in that 2nd tab or it will not index it for you

complicated but it works–if you need further help or more info contact me at elena.rose_treader@yahoo.com

13 Pat in DallasOctober 28, 2013 at 6:46 pm

My I echo Paul’s comments (Post #11) regarding “genealogists” who post from other’s trees, or worse find a historical figure with the same name and “force” their tree to that person without any documentary basis.

Paul, the only worse thing for the posting data citing as the source another’s family tree IS WHERE THE PERSON WHO IS REFERRED TO IS YOUR FATHER! AND the data is 100% wrong! This happened to me, and I notified very strongly 2 posters of their errors. Neither changed their posting or family tree on Ancestry.com. I feel there is nothing that I can do!!!

Ancestry Anne, you may file this is “what the heck” but I truly have enjoyed your posts; the topics; and the great and informative responses. PLEASE keep posting and posting on facebook!

Pat

14 MichaelOctober 29, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Thanks, Leana – that got me pointed in the right direction for cross-saving some naturalization records. I saved them directly from the record to multiple people in the tree. But there’s still not the freedom to source all the relevant facts that you can see on the record but aren’t indexed (for instance, marriage dates on these naturalization petitions).

15 carobellaterry1November 7, 2013 at 4:17 am

Echo all the above comments. As a newbie (2 months) to genealogy and Ancestry., I am still learning the intricacies of how the Ancestry website works. I really wish that there was a special dedicated space for Newbies showing step by step instructions on how to do stuff like – how to record sources and citations, for instance.

Only found out about Citations and Resources in the last 10 days. It is easier when looking for answers to put questions into Google (where I found this article) than through the Ancestry website.

This article is good and posts are interesting too so thank you to the author and the comments that followed.

However, I really need practical advice please.

My problems are :

1 Where to record the information if I have obtained a BMD certs from GRO (UK) – need step by step instruction – baby steps please with illustrations if poss.

2 How to record the information – what is the accepted protocol?

Many thanks

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