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Strategies for Starting Your Family History: Citing Sources

    At recent genealogy meetings I’ve been introduced to a number of people who are just starting their family history...more than I’ve seen for a few years.  That’s exciting.  TV programs, news broadcasts and newspapers seem to be writing more often about finding your roots.  Adopted children are searching for birth parents and hardly a week goes by when one of the news programs doesn’t talk about the importance of knowing your family health history.  

    It’s a great time to be starting  your journey.  Those of us who have been searching for more than 10-15 years remember that there was research before the  Internet and it required us to travel to archives, courthouses, the the local Family History Center.  All of our census research was done off microfilm using soundex or printed indexes.  It’s important to remember that you can’t do all of your research online, but today, it’s the way most people are introduced to genealogy.

    It still amazes me when I hear the newbies talk about finding their entire family tree online...back to the 1500s, to royalty or to Adam and Eve (yes, there are some online genealogies with such purported claims!)  One thing you will quickly find is that most of the genealogies online do not include sources...that makes the information only a clue and you need to find the documentation to verify the accuracy.   (And no, quantity doesn’t count on the Internet...just because you found one date in five places and another date in only three, five doesn’t win!  It just means that the information has been copied...right or wrong.)

    So here’s my advise to newbies (and not so newbies <g>). 

    If you ask a professional genealogist what advise they wish they had been given at the beginning, nine out of ten will say, “cite your sources.”  All of us (if we ever get a chance to work on our own families again) will tell you that we have information from our newbie days and we have no idea where the information came from.  And here’s something you can take to the WILL find conflicting information, whether it is online, in books or in original sources (my father-in-law’s surname is spelled wrong on his birth certificate).  If you don’t know the source of the information, how can you evaluate it?  Was it original or derivative?  Was the information primary or secondary?  (If you don’t understand these terms, click here.)

    When I realized that sources were important, I purchased a copy of Richard Lackey’s Cite  Your Sources: A Manual for Documenting Family Histories and Genealogical Records.  Published in 1985, it was considered THE resource.  Then came Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian in 1997.  This compact 124 page book is the book no genealogist or family historian should be without.  Elizabeth often says that citation is an art, not a science, but this book will set you on the right course when citing sources.   Two of the main purposes for source citation are so other researchers can find your source and review it, and so you can evaluate information that may conflict.  Each piece of information in your genealogical database (name, date, event, location, family story) should have a source citation, maybe even multiple citations (you might find a date in one record and a location in another record).  

    Elizabeth has since published two editions (2007 and 2009) of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace.  This book is a whopping 885 pages and close to three pounds.  It is a superb book, but may be overkill if you’re starting out.  Your library should have a copy if you need to refer to it.  

    Finally there are two “Quick Sheets,” four page laminated sheets which are quick reference guides.  I’ve listed below the information on each of these resources which can be purchased online or off.

    So, take the advise of this genealogist and start off on the right foot.  Whether you are using genealogical software, or an online service, Cite Your Sources.

    Happy Hunting!


Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1997.

_______. Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2007.

______. QuickSheet: Citing Online Historical Resources, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2005. 

______. QuickSheet: Citing® Databases & Images, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2009.

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2018