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Why do we do this?

So The Legal Genealogist got yet another one of those emails yesterday that just has to have you shaking your head.

There’s yet another new course out there on documenting genealogical sources — doing citations — and the email announcing it1 listed six reasons to cite sources when we’re doing our genealogy:

1. So you don’t struggle to find your proof again.
2. So others can find your proof.
3. To give your research reliability and credibility.
4. To avoid accusations of plagiarism.
5. To help you determine how to solve conflicting information.
6. And finally, to give credit where credit is due.

Um… no.

Oh I don’t mean those aren’t reasons to cite sources. They are. Absolutely.

ManualAnybody who’s ever struggled — and boy, do I include myself in this category — trying to find our way back to where we found a particular fact or particular document knows only too well how important it is to write down the source information so we don’t end up reinventing the wheel time and time again.

None of us wants to spread misinformation around about our families, and we want those who follow along behind us to know what we relied on to reach our conclusions.

We certainly do want our work to “receive proper acclaim and provide (us) with the recognition (we) deserve” for the high-quality work it is.

We all do want to avoid plagiarism and accusations of plagiarism.

We do understand that when others cite their sources, it’s easier for us to verify their work and use it ourselves.

And, of course, we all want to give credit where credit is due — and to receive it when it’s due to us.

None of which really truly addresses the basic fundamental reason why we as genealogists cite our sources.


Source citation is part of the Genealogical Proof Standard, the process developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists which has five interdependent components as explained in BCG’s new Genealogy Standards:

• Reasonably exhaustive research — emphasizing original records providing participants’ information — for all evidence that might answer a genealogist’s question about an identity, relationship, event, or situation;
• Complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item contributing — directly, indirectly, or negatively — to answers about that identity, relationship, event, or situation;
• Tests — through processes of analysis and correlation — of all sources, information items, and evidence contributing to an answer to a genealogical question or problem;
• Resolution of conflicts among evidence items pertaining to the proposed answer;
• A soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion based on the strongest available evidence.2

Each element, each part of the GPS “contributes to a conclusion’s credibility in a different way,”3 and here’s the real reason for citing our sources: “Complete and accurate source citations demonstrate the research extent and sources’ quality.”4 In other words, here’s the purpose for documentation:

Citations, narrative text, and connections between the two enable genealogists and others to (a) assess the credibility of each source or image a genealogist used, (b) locate that source or image, and (c) understand the research scope.5

Now maybe that all sounds a bit hifalutin’. Perhaps it’ll make a bit more sense the way Elizabeth Shown Mills says it:

Citing a source is not an end to itself. Our real goal is to rely only upon the best possible source. … To that end source citations have two purposes:

• to record the specific location of each piece of data; and
• to record details that affect the use or evaluation of that data.

Most researchers intuitively recognize the first function. However, to help ourselves and our readers evaluate the reliability of our evidence, we often need to discuss issues relating to a source’s quality and content, not just identity and whereabouts.6

And she explains why this is important:

Research is more than an accumulation of data. It is a process that requires continual comparison of new information against the old. At every step of the process, we appraise the credibility of each detail in each document. We apply every conceivable test for authenticity, contemporaneousness, and credibility of informants, As we acquire historical and social perspective of a place and time — and gain experience in evaluating its material legacies — evidence analysis becomes a fascinating part of the research process.7

So how do we apply this in what we do every day? I can only tell you what I try to do.

When I cite a source — in order to put together the source citation — I try to consider all the things that go into making this particular document or image or website or manuscript or whatever a good source to use. Just a few of the things I might consider are things like:

• Is this an original document or a copy?

• If it’s an original, has it been altered?

• If it’s a copy, how likely is it to have been copied accurately?

• In either case, was it created at the time of the event by somebody who was there and actually witnessed it?

• Even if it was created then by someone with personal knowledge, did that person have a motive to lie — or some legal duty to tell the truth — that would affect the credibility of the information?

It’s things like the 1847 publication date on a family Bible that purports to record births between 1749 and 1835. (Pretty clear that the entries weren’t made at the time of the events recorded!)

It’s things like two different inks on a document in a courthouse. (Something was added or changed — maybe at the same time, maybe later.)

It’s things like a modern paper and modern processing used in a photograph that somebody says was taken just after the Civil War. (It’s at best a copy of the original.)

And every time I find something like that when I’m working with a source, I’m going to write it down and include it in my source citation so when my cousins come along and read what I’ve written, they know what I was working with.

They’ll know, when I say that my grandfather’s name was recorded in a particular way on the 1940 census, that my grandmother was indicated as being the one who provided the information.

They’ll know, when I describe the inscription on the back of a photograph, whether I recognize the handwriting — and how familiar I am with it to be able to recognize it.

They’ll know, when I say no entry was found for my scoundrel second great grandfather in the 1860 census of Parker County, Texas, that I searched every single page and every single line of that census and the blankety-blank-blank character just isn’t there.

By writing these things down as part of a citation, I’m trying to apply what I’ve learned from Elizabeth Shown Mills and from BCG’s standards.

Did I always do this? Of course not. I was a beginner once too and made every single mistake in the book — and probably some that never made it into the book. But I’m trying to do it right these days.

I hope you’re with me in that. We all owe it to ourselves to keep trying to do it right.

And for the right reasons, too.


  1. No, actually, I’m not going to cite my source here. The actual course looks pretty good and there’s no reason to whack the course author because of an email the author didn’t write.
  2. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50th anniversary edition (Nashiville, Tenn. : Ancestry, 2014, 1.
  3. The Genealogical Proof Standard,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 12 Mar 2014).
  4. BCG, Genealogy Standards, at 2.
  5. Ibid., Standard 3, at 6.
  6. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2d ed. (Baltimore : Genealogical Publ. Co., 2009), 42-43.
  7. Ibid., at 16.
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