Rules of the road
Are we there yet?
Tracking research routes
- Download and/or print copies of genealogical data you find online. Note the URL, date you accessed it, the website title and (if known) owner, and information author, along with the usual information about the source itself (such as the volume and page number of a digitized deed and the name of the county office that created it). You never know when web pages or their content will move or disappear.
- When making copies from a book, also copy the title page and write on it any other pertinent publication information (such as the volume and page numbers you copied). Note the condition of each source (missing pages, an incomplete index, blurry microfilm) and how you used it. Did you review images of records? Keyword-search a database?
- Keep your photocopies, digitized images or online index results and your notes about them together.
- Consider using bibliographic software such as Evernote or Zotero as your personal card catalog: a place to keep all your source citation information. When it’s time to write up your research, you can easily dump reference information into footnotes without having to retype it.
“If following a standard [citation] format is intimidating, remember that the format is flexible,” Stevens adds—especially if you don’t plan to publish your research in a genealogical journal. She outlines the necessary citation elements:
- Who: author who or agency that created the record
- What: title of the document
- When: date the record was created
- Where: place and publisher, volume, page number, etc.
- How: location where the record can be found
“You also may want to include notes as to why the record is useful or what you learned from it,” Stevens says.
Family Tree Magazine offers a free, downloadable Source Documentation Cheat Sheet, as well as other great cheat sheets and genealogy freebies.
Finding conflicting information, such as two marriage dates for a couple, can throw a pothole into your genealogical travels. How do you know which (if any) date is right? “I look at each piece of evidence again,” Stevens says. “I weigh it like this: An original source is usually stronger than one that was derived from another source. Information recorded at or near the time of the event is usually stronger than information recorded sometime afterward. Direct evidence, which directly states a fact, usually carries more weight than indirect evidence, which only implies a fact.”
Sharing your family tree journey
Other authors put research notes and/or source lists at the end of the narrative instead of within the text or at the bottom the page, insert images of original documents as their sources, and weave evidence into the story without belaboring every detail of how they arrived at their conclusions. But even if you’re “just” writing for your family, don’t cop out on doing it right. Make sure your research is thorough and your reasoning and source information are available to those who ask about it. “Our families deserve an accurate family history,” Mills says. And your attention to the evidence will increase your family’s confidence in your findings and lay groundwork for future researchers.
Checking the rear-view mirror