A citation sigh

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 (http://bcgcertification.org/ : 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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12 Responses to A citation sigh

  1. I want to cite my sources correctly and I have tried but . . . Here is one issue I’ve had. Recently I was searching newspapers on the Chronicling America site when I found an article. I cut it out and saved it to the folder on my computer for that person. Even though the citation was listed as the top of the screen for my snip, it doesn’t show when I saved the file. Many of the online documents that I save are in jpeg format so how/where do I put the citation when I save them. I have occasionally inserted the jpeg into a Word document and then pasted or written the citation below, but I always have my files as thumbnails so I can find them more easily. The Word documents all look the same with only the Word logo showing. Please don’t laugh at me if this is a dumb comment.


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It’s not dumb at all, Margel — first off, it’s not an easy thing to figure out and, beyond that, I’m a firm believer in the maxim that the only dumb question is the one that doesn’t get asked. There are a bunch of methods to do what you want to do there, but one of the easiest is to open the JPG file in whatever program you use to edit images, increase the CANVAS size (not the image size) to add white space above or below the image, and then use the Text feature to enter your citation information right on the image in that white space. That way you’ll never lose it.

  2. Francis Shawn Bawden says:

    RE: Genealogy Proof Standard

    I’ve asked you before about gaining access to records concerning a deceased veteran’s military service, and you advised (perhaps too legal to term?) me that the best course of action would be to petition to become the administrator of his estate. I’m particularly interested in obtaining medical records to prove eligibility for the Purple Heart. There may (or may not) be records at the VA. I’ve contacted them in the past, but the answer I received was a little vague.

    I’ve reviewed the steps necessary to become an administrator of an estate in California and have concluded that these actions are “unreasonable” (including too costly). Moreover, I have strong circumstantial evidence showing that the veteran did in fact earn a Purple Heart.

    Have I met the Genealogical Proof Standard for a reasonably exhaustive search although there may (or may not) be records at the VA?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      To recap: you’ve advised that the veteran you’re interested in is a great uncle and, as such, you don’t qualify as next of kin under the standard definition. You’ve sought and been turned down in getting records from the National Personnel Records Center because of that. Before I would give up, I would try one more time with the VA (since their answers have only been vague), and I would file a formal Freedom of Information Act request with the VA. I would submit proof of his death and your relationship, and argue that, since this man died without issue, you believe that you do qualify as next of kin. If you’re turned down, file a formal appeal (these are all just a matter of sending letters, by the way — no official documents are involved). Then and only then would I personally think I had done all I could. And, of course, I’m assuming you’ve already searched all of the public databases.

  3. Francis Shawn Bawden says:

    I emailed my contact at the National Personnel Records Center (NARA) following up on this issue and mentioned FOIA. Here’s the reply I received an hour later:

    “Congratulations! Due to your question about access, we procured the VA claim file from the Veteran’s Administration in order to answer the question concerning his discharge date. I believe it includes most of the medical information you are seeking and we are adding it to the reconstructed file. It will be part of the record you will be purchasing once you receive the invoice. If you request records in the future, please note that this action was only taken to answer the question of archival determination and is not a regular procedure. So no need to perform that FOIA request!”

    So it sounds like they had the records all the years I’ve been looking for them.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s no question that they had the records (or obtained them). But remember, they didn’t say they didn’t have them. They originally said you couldn’t get them because you weren’t the next of kin. They now seem to agree that you’re the closest kin he’s got so… what was it my ninth grade guidance counselor used to say? Perseverance is an asset!

  4. Alex Colvin says:

    I’m a history major. Trust me, sources matter. But I defer to Chicago style rather than fall under the Elizabeth S. Mill or BCG spell and think that genealogy requires “special” citations. That, to me is more about Mill selling a book and promoting Mill than a legitimate need to re-invent citation styles. I find Chicago covers everything, if you know how to do citations. I’m of the opinion if Chicago is good enough for a vast number of published social scientists, it’s surly good enough for genealogy, of which I’ve done my fair share.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yes, sources do matter. And accuracy is essential (such as, for example, properly citing the name of the author you’re criticizing). The fact is, history majors cite for one reason — to leave breadcrumbs back to source material. Genealogists cite for that reason, of course, but for another far more critical reason: to explain why certain sources are credible, or more credible than others. If you can do that following the Chicago Manual of Style, do so. Citation, as the author whose name you persistently misspell emphasizes, is an art, not a science.

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