In this article:
- Why cite your sources?
- Software source citation fields and functions
- Additional resources
- Downloadable source citation cheat sheet
You probably began your family history research by scouring through old family papers and interviewing relatives. Before you knew it, you’d also checked censuses, birth records and passenger lists, and exchanged information with several other researchers. Then, one day you found a census record saying your great-grandmother was born in Indiana, but you’d recorded that she was born in Ohio. Did your original information come from a reliable source, such as her birth certificate, or was it just a vague family tradition? Carefully recording where you find each piece of information will help you weigh conflicting information, compile an accurate family history and avoid duplicating efforts.
Creating a master source
Luckily, genealogy software makes it easy to record your sources. The specific steps vary depending on your program, but most let you create a “master source” that includes a title, author and publication information, as well as the source’s location—whether it’s a library, courthouse or your personal files—and a specific call number or Web site address. If you find references to several family members in the same source, such as a will or census record, you simply reuse the master source. If necessary, you can change the specific volume or page number cited in each person’s record.
Don’t fret over filling in every field for every source, however—you need enter only those that relate to the resource in question. For example, the Volume/Page No. field would apply to a book or even a deed, but not an oral history interview. Our chart shows examples of the information you might enter for several commonly used source types.
Adding document details and images
Most genealogy software also has fields for actual text, where you can quote from the source, and comments, where you can add notes on the source’s legibility or completeness. You also can attach a scanned image of the original document to a source citation, but I just like to quote key facts in the actual text field or summarize them in the notes field. Some programs have a field for recording a document number in your files, or you could record that information in a comments or notes field.
If a source provides several pieces of information on someone, you can attach an Individual Source to the whole record, rather than citing the same master source several times. In Family Tree Maker, click on the Sources/Citations button next to a person’s name in Family View.
Some genealogy software also has fields for source medium (book, microfilm or interview) and source quality, where you can comment on the source’s reliability. If you’re recording something based on your personal knowledge, don’t forget to say so in a note or source citation. When your source is an online family tree, note that, too, but try to find a primary source, such as a record of birth or death, to document each fact.
Getting additional help
For more-detailed guidance on formatting citations, see Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Co., $16.95) and the companion Quicksheet for Citing Online Historical Resources ($5.95), and Family History Documentation Guidelines (Silicon Valley Computer Genealogy Group, $13.50). Record your sources as you go, and you’ll never be left wondering where you found a piece of your family history.
Download a cheat sheet of example citations for 14 different source types (PDF, 64K).