Skillbuilding: Citing Your Sources
Newsletter of the BCG
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Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Citing Your Sources,"
OnBoard 1 (September 1995): 24.
Quality or junk? How do you want your research described
Many factors combine to create "quality" in genealogy.
But there is only one so obvious, so fundamental, that quality
is never possible without it: proper source citations.
And there is only one fault so obvious, so fundamental,
that it instantly brands a piece of work as the product
of an amateur or careless researcher: poor source citations.
We may know a set of records better than anyone else in
existence; but if the material we extract is not identified
in a manner that permits others to easily relocate the document
we used, then our information is suspect. Neither our knowledge
nor our skill is trusted.
That's a terrible indictment. But it is one that hangs
over the head of many a well-intentioned and dedicated person.
Whether we are librarians or society volunteers who answer
mail inquiries- whether we are family historians, writers
or professional researchers - there is no other standard.
We must document, and we must document well.
Reference notes address two basic research needs: the need
to know where a specific record is located; and the
need to understand that record.
The Need to Locate
A proper source citation for a record is the equivalent
of an address and phone number for a person. Every address
and phone number must include certain elements, if people
are to successfully contact the party they seek.
Source citations have their own basic elements that we
must learn. They differ somewhat, according to the type.
To strip them down to the barest essentials:
- name of author
- title of book (in italics or underlined)
- place of publication
- name of publisher
- year of publication
- page (and possibly volume) number
- name of author
- title of article (in quotation marks)
- title of periodical (in italics or underlined)
- volume number
- date of publication (month and year)
- page number
- title of document (i.e. Deed: John Brown to Sam Smith)
- date(s) written and/or recorded
- collection name (e.g.: Probate Judge Files; or
Thomas Tidbury Collection)
- book/page of document (if recorded in bound manuscript
- file or box and document number
- repository name
- repository location (city and state suffice for public
institutions; if document is in private possession, give
The Need to Understand
Records come in all shapes, forms, and degrees of reliability.
Each time we use a record, we need to note any and all factors
that affect its interpretation or the degree of weight that
we (and others) should put upon its information.
In both our personal notes and the work we make public,
our source citations should include that interpretative
data. In short, once we refer researchers to a specific
source, we are obligated to alert or caution them, as they
may be less experienced with the materials.
The work of certified genealogists - of whatever specialty
- is expected by both the public and the Board to observe
the following basic principles.
- Every statement of fact that is not public knowledge
must carry its individual citation of source.
- Every photocopied document must have the citation clearly
penned or typed thereon.
- Every abstract of a document that we record or send
out to others must have a complete citation attached to
- Every statement of fact on a group sheet or an ancestor
chart must carry a reference note with its own individual
citation of source - a complete citation.
- Italics or underscoring should be used for titles of
published books, magazines, newspapers, and microfilm
- Quotation marks are used for names of articles (within
a published book or magazine) and for unpublished manuscripts.
Aaach! you say. Learning all this is too much
trouble! Oh? How much time have you invested in learning
PAF or Roots IV or WordPerfect?
If you aren't an expert at source citation, for the price
of what it would cost you for a night at the movies, you
can buy any of several good citation manuals. This is one
of the few areas of life in which quality truly comes cheap!
Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL
Update (February 1998)
For the latest guidance on source citations, traditional
and electronic, the Board for Certification of Genealogists
highly recommends Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence: Citation
& Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore: Genealogical
Publ. Co., 1997), available from GPC or BCG at $16.95 plus
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
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