Tyler Stahle | May 3, 2018

5 Steps to Writing the Perfect Genealogical Source Citation

This is the second of a two-part series exploring genealogical source citations. Read part one.

In last week’s blog article, we explored source citations and their importance in genealogy research. In this article, we’ll cover the basics of how to write excellent source citations. Much of this content was shared by accredited genealogist and author Diana Elder in her RootsTech 2018 presentation “Source Citations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

If you would like to learn more from Elder, her book Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide is available for sale on Amazon. You can also read her blog, familylocket.com.

5 Questions to Ask Before Creating a Source Citation

As any good journalist would tell you, before you start writing anything, it’s a good idea to ask and answer a few basic questions. These questions help writers get a better feel for the topic they need to cover. The same goes for creating a genealogy source. In her RootsTech presentation, Elder explained the five questions genealogists should ask themselves before writing a source citation. They are:

  • Who created the source?
  • What is the source?
  • When is the source?
  • Where is the source?
  • Where within the source?

“I cannot take credit for these five questions,” said Elder. “The Board for Certification of Genealogists came up with these five questions, and then Tom Jones, in his book Mastering Genealogical Documentation, goes on to further explain these.”

To explain the five questions, Elder displayed a picture of a land record for Arthur Dillard on the screen and detailed the process she uses to write source citations.


This land record comes from MyFlorida.com. The first step is to “discover what this source is,” said Elder. “I see that it’s the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 Florida Land Permits, and it’s an entry for Arthur Dillard. So it’s basically giving me the same information that I took out of the actual document.”

The next step is to discover who created the source. Elder noted that this can be one of the most difficult steps because it requires some sleuthing on the part of the researcher. “Look for the FAQ, Frequently Asked Questions, because most websites will have something like that. Maybe they’ll say, ‘About the Source,’ or, ‘For More Information.’ Look for that little clue somewhere on the website.” In this case, Elder was able to find the creator of the record on the FAQ page of the website, as shown below.


Next, look for when the source was created or documented. In this example from Elder, she said it was fairly straightforward. “I have the actual document date of July 26, 1843, and I have a second [date], and that is when the website was accessed.”


Finally, it’s time to discover the where in from the source. In many cases, you’ll have multiple numbers and IDs to choose from that identify where in the source the image or document can be found. Elder recommended making note of each of them, even if you don’t fully know what each number means. In the case of this example, she said, “They both look like important numbers, so why not use both? Remember, this is an art, not a science. So there’s nothing saying you can’t use two whereins.”


Once you’ve collected this information from the source, you’re ready to put it all together into a citation.


“So there’s my citation,” said Elder. “I have the five elements, and it’s pretty clear what that is.”

Ready to get started writing your own source citations? Tweet us @RootsTechConf with your successes. Happy researching!

Tyler Stahle

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