3 Tips for Solid Source Citations

Why cite sources? As genealogists, we hear all the time that we should, that it’s the right thing to do, but sometimes the reasoning itself isn’t clear. After all, if you’re pulling information from an official record, that data has to be solid, right? In her video class ‘Simple Tips for Solid Source Citations‘, Sunny Jane Morton emphasizes the numerous reasons why source citations are more than just a good idea:

  • To keep track of what we’re doing
  • To evaluate what we’ve found
  • To ‘prove’ our findings to others
  • To provide a trail for others to follow or build upon
  • To discuss with those who disagree
  • To avoid plagiarism and give credit where due
  • Because sources are interesting artifacts


Here are some of Sunny’s keys to putting together solid citations:

1. The citation itself is just one step. To confirm the factuality and authenticity of your data, you must first properly evaluate the source of your information. Questions to ask include:

  • What type of record is it?
  • Can you tell who created it and who reported the information therein? What credentials, biases, limitations or weaknesses might that person or agency have had?
  • Is it complete–are parts missing or illegible?
  • Is it an original record, a true copy, a transcript, translation or abstract?
  • If a copy, do you have access to the original at least long enough to compare them? Any difference?
  • Was the record created at the same time as the information was recorded?
  • Do the front, end and other descriptive matter give more clues about the creation of this record?

2. Link the source information to the data itself. This is the best way to stay organized, and prevent you from having to double-back later or go hunting for records you’ve already found.Options for doing this include photocopying the title page and the publication information from a book and stapling it to the photocopied records. Be sure to copy the full title, all authors, the edition (if applicable), publisher, city, state and publication date. Alternatively, you could write this information in the margins of the photocopied records. Both are good options for when you are working in the library, copying pages from books. If you’re working paperlessly online or with your own database on your computer, then you can insert citation information in your database or online family tree, or you can record it in bibliographic software such as Endnote, RefWorks or Zotero.

3. Good source citations can provide further clues about your ancestors. Sometimes you have to compare data gathered in different places, or sometimes the clues are in the data themselves. Sometimes the information fits with what you already know, and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes the clues are in the sources. Here are some important questions to ask that can assist in your data analysis:

  • Which sources were created closest to the time of the event?
  • Which sources report firsthand knowledge of the event?
  • What biases might these sources have had?
  • Did you consult an original source, a copy or a derivative?
  • Was the source complete, or were parts missing that might have altered your understanding of the content?
  • Do you trust the provenance or authenticity of the source?

Watch the whole video here.

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