How Should I Use Citations In Genealogical Research?

Have you ever begun a new project, gone online to research, or looked through old handwritten family records, and found conflicting facts such as different birthplaces or dates?  Which is true?  In order to judge which, if either, fact is likely to be true we want to find out where the fact came from.  The questions genealogists often ask when looking at a fact are:

  1. Who reported the fact – who was the “informant?” (The ancestor, the grandchild of the ancestor, or the neighbor, etc.?)
  2. How close was that person to the event? (Were they a witness or did they hear about that birth/death/burial second-hand?)
  3. Has this information been re-copied to this document, and can errors have been introduced in the transcription? (By a clerk, minister, indexer?)

Knowing the answer to these questions helps the researcher “weigh the evidence.”  True, it isn’t an infallible system, but it is a good place to start.

The Key: No researcher can begin to weigh the evidence and compare facts without actually knowing where the information came from.   A citation, properly crafted, holds the:

  • WHO …could have been the informant?
  • WHAT …type of record is it and does it have identifying registration numbers associated with it?
  • WHY …was the record created?
  • WHEN …was the record created?
  • WHERE …can I get this record again if I need to refer to it or find other relatives in surrounding records like it?

Citations are the hammer in the nail of effective research

Many of us remember making bibliographies or footnoting our research papers from high school or college, and know that there are standard citation styles.  You may have used the  Modern Language Association (MLA) style, the Chicago Manual of Style, or others.  If you are comfortable with a certain style, then use that.  It is better to use something, and use it consistently, than to not cite your sources at all. You might consider, however, a style beautifully geared specifically for genealogical research: Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book, Evidence Explained.  Regardless, the importance of citing every fact cannot be overstated!

Without knowing where a fact came from, how can you judge its reliability?  If you can’t be sure of your information, how effective can your research be?  When researching, keep notes – in research logs, in a genealogy software program, in a book you are writing.  No matter where you put the results of your research, remember to note the Who-What-Why-When-Where in a consistent format that will be easily understood by other researchers, and by yourself if you find you need to put the research away for now and come back to it months or years later.

Citations are worth the few minutes to note, and valuable for weighing any evidence that later conflicts with your findings.  You will thank yourself every time.

Write in and let us know how having or not having citations have changed your research, we’d love to hear from you!