Genealogy Q&A: 3 Steps to Source Citations

Genealogy Q&A: 3 Steps to Source Citations

3 steps for citing genealogy sources.



Q. I know how to fill out a family tree chart, but how do you cite your sources?

A. Source citation is just recording where you found each piece of information so you—or anyone else—can go back to the original. Here’s how to do it:

1. Gather source information.

Different kinds of sources require different types of information. Refer to the genealogy source citation Bible, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Co.), and download our free source citation cheat sheet to help you collect all the information you’ll need.

For books, for example, record the title, author, publisher and location, year of publication, where you found the book, library call number (if applicable), and the pertinent page numbers.

For census records, you want the name of the census, dwelling and family numbers, household name, city or township, county, state, microfilm number and holding repository (if found on microfilm), website URL and date accessed (if found online), and author of the original source (so, the National Archives for census microfilm or online census records digitized from microfilm).It’s also important to note whether you’ve found an image of the original record, or an index entry or an abstract transcribed from the original record.

To find the source information, check the title page of a book, first page of a roll of microfilm, the library catalog entry for a book or microfilm, and/or the search page of the online database you used.

In this short video, Shannon Combs-Bennett talks about the one thing she wants everyone to know about source citations. And you’ll be relieved to know that it takes some of the stress off!

2. Standardize it.

Once you’ve collected source information, you can put it into a standard format—a formal source citation—to make it easier for any genealogist to understand. Here’s an example of a source citation for a book:

Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo and Erin Nevius, eds., The Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists (Cincinnati: Family Tree Books, 2004), 219-220.

This citation for a census record shows another comprehensive template:
1870 U.S. Federal Census (Population Schedule), Cincinnati 9th Ward, Hamilton County, Ohio, Dwelling 112, Family 565, George Depenbrock household, jpeg image, (Online:, 2009) [Digital scan of original records in the National Archives, Washington, DC, microfilm publication M593], subscription database, <>, accessed 24 March 2012

EasyBib is a Web tool that automatically formats citations based on what you type in about the source.

3. Organize it.

Keeping track of your source information and citations is the other half of the battle. Most genealogy software and family tree sites let you type in source details and attach digitized records to facts and events in your tree. Your software might even use those details to generate a formal source citation.

If you keep records in digital form, you can include a source number in each file name and keep a spreadsheet of the corresponding source citations. You can use some photo-editing programs to add a source citation to a record image (see a demo here), and newer versions of the free Adobe Reader will let you add text to a PDF if the PDF creator enabled the Typewriter tool.

If you’re using paper, number all your photocopied records and add those numbers next to names on your family group sheets. Some genealogists include a full citation on the front side of every photocopied record so the citation doesn’t get separated from the data.

Q: Why is it necessary to cite my sources? 

A.  Source citations document your research, which makes it easier to find again. Plus, a citation lends credibility to your work – whether you’re publishing it, or sharing it with close family members, and it supports your theories, assertions and proof statements. Finally, it establishes the reliability of your sources.

 A good source citation will tell you the answers to these questions:
  1. Who – Who is the source referring to?
  2. What- What does the source document?
  3. When – When was the event, and when was the source created?
  4. Where – Where is the source located (repository)
  5. Where – Where did you access it? (On, online, at the library, etc.)

Article updated from an earlier Q&A from 2014.


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