Sources and resources

Source citation styles

A lot of family historians feel ill-equipped to create good source citations for their research. One of the aspects of source citations that can cause confusion is style and format – so let’s take a look at that today.

There are two things that make formatting a citation a bit tricky in family history. Firstly, there is no single standard format; and secondly, we use a lot of different types of sources.

Purpose of a source citation

It is helpful to consider the purpose of a source citation, as we can use that as a guide to the content that needs to be included and how that content might usefully be structured.

In family history, the purpose of a citation is:

  • to acknowledge the work of the creator of a source
  • to locate the source (so that you can view it again, or another researcher can view it for the first time)
  • to help analyse the information obtained from the source.

I have blogged about this before: Four good reasons to cite your sources Part 1 and Part 2.

Citation style

The format of a citation is dictated by the citation style.

Different disciplines tend to stick with a particular citation style. Here are the most common:

  • APA (American Psychological Association) is used by the social sciences, such as Education, Psychology and Sciences
  • MLA (Modern Language Association) is used by the Humanities
  • Chicago is used by Business, History and the Fine Arts.

Since family history is a type of history, we use the Chicago style. The variation that we use is called Chicago A. It includes footnotes and a bibliography. There is another version of the Chicago style called Chicago B, which uses author and date in brackets after the information instead of footnotes. Chicago B is not appropriate for family history because unpublished sources do not necessarily have an author.

Format

The format for a citation varies depending on the type of source. That is because there is different information needed to achieve our purpose – especially that purpose of locating the source. A citation for a published book for example, does not need information about the repository because there are multiple copies and you can find one by searching a library catalogue or bookshop website. A citation for an unpublished photograph on the other hand, needs information about the repository because it is a lot more challenging to find without that information. It also needs information about how the photograph is catalogued by that repository, such as a file number.

Example of a book citation in the Chicago style

Footnote: B.W. Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaican 1807-1834, Kingston Jamaica,  1995, 81.

Bibliography: Higman, B.W., Slave Population and Economy in Jamaican 1807-1834, Kingston Jamaica, The Press University of the West Indies, 1995.

The main differences between the format for a footnote and the bibliography are:

  • the author’s surname is in first position in the bibliography so that all publications by the one author are together when the list is arranged alphabetically
  • footnotes include a page number
  • footnotes generally include the location of publication but not the name of the publisher.

Some guides replace the commas with full stops.

Example of an unpublished source in the Chicago style

Footnote: John Willoughby Bean, unpublished photograph in album of Edwin and Lucy Bean, Item 6/1165, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

Bibliography: Anonymous, John Willoughby Bean (b1881 Bathurst NSW Australia), unpublished photograph in album of Edwin and Lucy Bean, Item 6/1165, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

The main differences between the format for a footnote and the bibliography for this source are that the bibliographic citation needs to include an author so that the list can be sorted alphabetically and it may contain additional identification details.


I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty detail about constructing a citation today – I will cover that in other posts. However, a couple of final tips.

If your source has been published, you can use an online catalogue to help you create the source citation. Catalogues such as World Cat or your State library have a free citation generator built into the catalogue. Search the catalogue for your source, then click the button in the citation generator and it will create a citation that you can copy.

If the citation generator does not include Chicago style, then use Turabian. If the citation generator has both, you might find that the Chicago style places the year of publication after the author’s name and Turabian places it at the end of the citation.

There are a lot of citation guides for the Chicago style online. However, the problem is that they tend to focus on published material. If you need help creating a citation for unpublished material, it is best to use a guide developed by a genealogist.

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