Tyler Stahle | May 1, 2018

How to Create Source Citations for Genealogy Research

This is the first of a two-part series exploring genealogical source citations.

Source citations. If these two words just made you shudder, you’re not alone. Think back to your college and high school days, when every research paper you wrote required properly cited sources. For many of us, it was a painfully tedious process.

But source citations don’t have to be mind numbing! In fact, in the genealogy world source citations are an important part of the research process as you discover your ancestors.

“Source citations are how we can connect our ancestors to their source documents where we are learning about them,” said Diana Elder in her RootsTech 2018 presentation. “So be thinking about that—that … the only way we connect is by actually writing something about that document we’re looking at.”

Elder, an accredited genealogist and author, spoke at length about proper source citations for genealogy at RootsTech 2018, and many of her main points will be covered in this blog post. 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.

What Is a Source?

Before getting too worried about how to properly write genealogical source citations, it’s a good idea to step back and understand what constitutes a source. In short, a source is any piece of information that gives you evidence to prove a conclusion. Common sources include:

  • Documents
  • Books
  • Articles
  • Websites

“You use sources every day as you’re researching your family,” said Elder. “Some of your sources are really common, like a census. Some of them might be very unusual, like the Navy pants my dad wore in the Navy with his name and his Navy unit engraved or stamped on the pants. That’s a weird source … but it gives proof that he was in the Navy and [identifies] his Navy unit.”

Good source citations clearly identify the specific location of a source and offer supporting details that make it easy for readers to see where you found your information.

For example, Elder displayed the following document on the screen during her presentation and said, “If I were just to give you this lovely document and say, ‘This proves that my great-great-grandfather was in DeKalb County in 1837,’ you would look at that and you would say, ‘Really?’”


However, adding a source citation about the document will be much more convincing, she said.

“Without even having read that entire document, if I give you this [source citation], … let’s see what you know. This is Thomas B. Royston, DeKalb County, Alabama, cash entry file, witness statement, state volume patent number 5909, Lebanon, Alabama Land Office, land entry papers 1800 to 1908, record group 49.”

When to Create Source Citations in Genealogy Research

There are a handful of times you’ll need to create a source citation during the research process. These citations are important documentation tactics that will help prove that you’ve conducted reasonably exhaustive research.

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One of the times you’ll need to write source citations is when you’ve added evidence or new sources to your family tree on FamilySearch or Ancestry.

“You might be adding a new source to FamilySearch or Ancestry. If I wanted to put that document up as evidence on Family Search, I would certainly need to add a citation to it, or else no one is going to look at that. How many people are going to read through [a document] and understand what that means? Not very many. But with the source citation, they’ll have more of a feel for why that is an important document,” advised Elder.

Storing Information in Your Personal Database

Elder noted that source citations are important for your own personal databases, not just databases that are shared publicly.

“You might think that you’ll remember where things come from, but we don’t remember,” she said. “We forget, and it’s really good to know where our information comes from so if we need to go back and look at it again, we know exactly where it is.”

Sharing Documents with Other Researchers

It’s extremely common to share documents with other researchers in today’s genealogy scene, and Elder said that whenever you share these things, it’s a good practice to include a source citation.

“When you’re sharing a document, if you don’t send a source citation with it, how is your cousin going to know where that came from?” she asked. “A little trick that I do is I put my document image into a Google doc, and then I type my source citation right underneath that, turn it into a PDF, and I send that to my cousin. They get the image with the source citation right on the paper, and it stays with the document.”

Other Benefits of Citing Sources

Besides being a good genealogical practice, citing sources has other research benefits.

For example, Elder noted that citing sources gives you the opportunity to really evaluate them and analyze the source. “If you don’t do this, then you’re in jeopardy of creating a bad source citation because you’ll just put something general, like the 1861 census. But to get a good source citation, you’ve got to understand and analyze.”

Secondly, properly citing your sources allows you to find them again. Nearly all family historians have experienced the dreaded feeling of not being able to find a source a second time because it wasn’t properly documented the first time they found it. You can avoid those experiences by citing your sources frequently.

Finally, properly cited sources prove reasonably exhaustive research. “It shows that you’ve thought about those different places used to search, and it just wasn’t there,” said Elder.

What tips or tricks do you have for creating genealogical source citations? Tweet us @RootsTechConf to share! Join us for part 2 of this series next week.

Tyler Stahle

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