Methodology, Sources and resources

Five tips to make citing sources easier

Every good genealogist knows that they need to cite their sources but many still find it a challenge. Here are five tips to make the process easier.

Keep the purpose of a source citation in mind

Thinking about the purpose of a source citation helps you focus on the information that needs to be included in it so that it achieves that purpose.

You might like to read the blog posts I wrote last year on this topic – Four Good Reasons to Cite your Sources Part 1 and Part 2.

After writing your citation, examine it closely and ask yourself:

  • Does the citation contain all the information that you or someone else would need to find the source again? Is the information complete and unambiguous?
  • Does it appropriately acknowledge who created the source?
  • Does it provide information to help you and others evaluate the reliability of the information within the source?

Compile a sample set of citations

Sources can be grouped into three categories:

  • sources that we use all the time – such as birth, baptism, marriage, death and burial records
  • sources that we use often – such as wills, probate records, land records, census, electoral rolls, newspapers, books, journals and website pages, and
  • sources that we use less frequently – such as DNA, unpublished archival records, maps, oral history, personal communication, personal reminiscences and social media.

Gather 1-2 sample source citations for each type and store them in a file that you can refer to when you need to create a new citation. Start with group 1, then move onto those types in group 2 that you use in your research. Samples for group 3 are optional and can be added whenever you create them.

Extract of transcription of death certificate for Thomas Flanagan, died 14 January 1928, Lidcombe, New South Wales, Australia

If you research in different geographic areas, you may find it useful to have sample citations from each area as there may be differences between the sources. A source citation for a UK census, for example, is different to one for an Australian census.

You can find sample citations in guides, on the web and from lectures.

Master list of citations

Keeping a master list of all the citations you create has a number of benefits.

A master citation list:

  • saves you having to reinvent the wheel when you use a source that you have used before
  • gives you more samples to copy from
  • helps you be more consistent with your citations
  • documents all the sources that you have used, which may help you identify new sources to examine.

Family history software generates a master list of citations as you create source citations.

You can also compile a master list yourself, in a spreadsheet or other program.

My blog post series about using Excel does not specifically illustrate a master list of citations, but reading those posts will give you general instructions that you can follow. I would start with columns for Who: author/creator, What: title/description, Where: publication details, When: date, and Other details. You can then add extra columns, if needed.

Use a guide

There are many guides about creating source citations. My advice would be to find a fairly simple one, written by either a genealogist or a historian. I have nothing against librarians, but their specialty is published materials whereas we use mostly unpublished materials. Also check for guides from the repository where you find a source, as they often suggest how to cite their sources.

Cover of book called Citing Historical Sources, A Manual for Family Historians, by Noeline Kyle

Source citation tools

If you use family history software, invest some time learning to use the source citation tools within the software.

If you use Legacy family history software, you might be interested in attending the March meeting of the Society of Australian Genealogists’ Legacy Software Users Group, where I will be running a session on this topic.


How to create a research plan in Excel

Research plans help you organise your research and focus on priorities, so that you can achieve more with your research. You could create a simple research plan in Word, but Excel offers more features to deal with the complexity of family history research and the huge volumes of data.

My first three posts about using Excel for family history contained simple examples to demonstrate the basic concepts and techniques. Now we move onto a more complex example, which you will be able to customise based on your own circumstances and needs.

Step 1 Choose your planning unit

To create a research plan you first need to choose the research planning unit. By that I mean – Are you going to produce a plan for:

  • each research question
  • each person
  • each family group
  • each surname, or
  • a project?

The example I have used here is for a family group, which is the unit that I find most useful in my own research.

Step 2 Set up your worksheets

You can have multiple worksheets in a spreadsheet and this is very useful for a research plan, because each worksheet can have a different function and format, but they are still kept within a single file.

For this demonstration we will use three worksheets:

  • a summary of information about the family
  • a plan and log, and
  • a search plan.

At the bottom of each worksheet there is a tab. Double click on Tab 1 and rename it Family Group. Use this sheet to summarise key information about the family, such as their names, name variants, birth date and location, marriage date and location, death date and location, and their literacy levels.

First page of a research plan created in Excel for genealogy, which summarises information about the family
Example of a Family Group worksheet

Double click on Tab 2 and rename it Research Plan. This is your main worksheet.

On worksheet no. 3, create a Search Plan for this family group (follow the instructions in my blog post Using Excel to Manage Searches) and rename the Tab.

Step 3 Set up your columns

A key benefit of creating a research plan in Excel is that you can include a lot of information in a single plan, then manipulate the information into manageable subsets using filters.

Where possible, set up columns on worksheet 2 (Research Plan) that can utilise the filter feature. To do this, you need to standardise how you enter data in the column – for example, Column I below has just two answers, Open or Closed.

Here are the columns that I use:

Column A – Research question or hypothesis. List all of your research questions and hypotheses for this family group.

Column B – Information needed. List the information needed to answer each question or hypothesis. You will need more than one row per question/hypothesis.

Column C – Source. List the sources you intend to search for the information. You should have more than one source for each piece of information.

Column D – Repository. List the repositories you intend to search for the sources. You may have more than one repository for each source.

Column E – Source citation. When you find the source, add the source citation here.

Column F – Analysis. Analyse the source and the information and summarise key points here.

Column G – Notes. Has the question has been satisfactorily answered, has the hypothesis been supported or refuted? Is more research required?

Column H – Tree updated. Update your family tree and mark it off here.

Column I – Status. This allows you to track whether the research task has been completed or whether it still needs work. Open = still being researched, Closed = research on this question or hypothesis is complete

Nine suggested columns for a research plan created in Excel for genealogy, including research question, source, citation, notes and status
Columns for the Research Plan worksheet. Adjust column widths as required.

Step 4 Add your data and filters

Start filling in the columns, then add filters.

To add filter buttons to each column: Click in Cell A1, click on the Data Tab, then click on the Filter button. This adds a little drop-down arrow to each column.

Example research plan created in Excel for genealogy, with data showing how to use the filters on columns
Data entered and filters added to each column. Columns E-G hidden in this example.

You can use the drop-down arrows to filter the data using any column. This is particularly useful if you end up with a large plan and you want to focus in on just a subset of the data for planning or printing purposes.

Here are just a couple of filtering examples:

Use a filter on Column A to show all tasks for a particular research question.
Columns E-G hidden in this example.
Use a filter on Column I to show just the tasks that are still open.
Columns E-G hidden in this example.

Methodology, Sources and resources

What’s wrong with this source?

Errors in historical sources are one of the main reasons why family histories become inaccurate.

Identifying errors

The first step in dealing with errors in historical sources is to identify them. There are three main types:

An error in the recording or transcription of information, such as a typographic error or spelling variation.

Death certificate, NSW Australia, naming Thomas Flanagan and children Mary, Frank, Elizabeth, Bridget, Katherine, Jane, Alice
A simple error – Katherine spelled with a K instead of a C

An error of comprehension or misunderstanding, such as when a name is misheard or the information for one person is transferred to the record of another.

Birth certificate for Catherine Agnes Flanagan, NSW Australia, demonstrating error in the name and birthplace of her mother
Perhaps a typo or perhaps it was misheard – Mother’s surname entered as Wolan instead of Dolan. A second error in the spelling of Leitrim, likely due to the recorder being unfamiliar with the place.
Birth certificate for Henry Albert Hend, NSW Australia, demonstrating error in father’s name
The name recorded for the father is actually the child’s name.
Death certificate, NSW Australia, for Thomas Flanagan, died 1928, with an error in his place of birth
Thomas’ wife’s place of birth has mistakenly been recorded as his place of birth.

Deliberate alteration or omission of information.

Extract of death certificate, NSW Australia, for Christina Malchow, died 1893, with details of children omitted
A deliberate action to omit information about a woman’s children.

The causes of errors are numerous, but they are more likely to occur when the informant:

  • cannot read and/or cannot check what was recorded
  • has an accent that is difficult for the recorder to understand, or
  • does not have the correct information.

It is important to remember that all sources can have errors. However, there are some general statements that can help you evaluate the likelihood of errors.

  • Original sources tend to have less errors, because they are the first version of a source. Errors tend to creep in as other sources are derived from the original.
  • Contemporary sources tend to have less errors, because they are closer to the event and are more likely to have been created by someone who participated in the event or were at least part of the society in which the event occurred.
  • Official sources tend to have less errors because they often follow regulated formats and content, and may have been created by an experienced record maker.

Things to be wary of

Errors in sources may not always be obvious. It is best to assume that each source has errors until proven otherwise.

Sometimes it is difficult to determine where the error lies. For example, when two sources contain different information it can be difficult to determine which one contains the error.

Be careful not to dismiss inconsistencies or explain away an error, unless you have evidence to back up your explanation. This is particularly important for changes in names and locations.

My tips for dealing with errors

  1. Check that source again
  2. Analyse the source and the information more thoroughly – see my other articles about analysing sources
  3. Check different versions of that same source
  4. Compare the information in that source to other sources about same person
  5. Compare the information in those sources to other sources about the family
  6. See what other researchers say about that family.

Of course, the error may not lie in the source but instead be the result of your research method or your analysis.

More information

Come to my lecture, Fixing Errors in Your Family Tree, for the Society of Australian Genealogists on 29 January for more discussion and tips on this topic. 

Read my other articles about research methodology and sources, by clicking on the blog post category to the right of this article.

Carol Baxter’s book, Help! Why can’t I find my ancestor’s surname? provides useful explanations for distortions in surnames, which may also help you understand other errors in sources.


Using Excel to improve the accuracy of your family tree

Improving the accuracy of your family history requires a systematic approach and Excel is particularly well suited to this.

In an earlier blog post, Are your roots strong enough, I demonstrated the basic methodology for a Tree Health Assessment (THA) using tables and a family tree chart. Excel can be used to take this further to conduct a more in depth analysis.

Step 1 Units of analysis

First you need to decide which units you want to use for analysis. These become the columns of your Excel table.

I use family groups as my first units, with one row per family group. I have a column for the male surname and another for the female surname. You could instead have one row per individual, but that would only be practical if you were focusing on just a portion of your tree.

The remaining units should be key events in a person’s life which are:

  • events that fairly common in your family, and
  • events about which it is important to get the details accurate.

The actual events will vary depending on your family history.

Create your table, with a column for each unit of analysis.

Twelve suggested columns in Excel for a table to assess the accuracy of your family tree
Example analysis units as columns

Step 2 Additional columns

To ensure that you do not mix up the family groups, add in extra columns with the unique identifier numbers.

To help analyse your tree systematically, you also need to add in a column for generations.


Each person in your family tree should have a unique identifier number to help your distinguish between people of the same name. If you use family history software, get the numbers from there.

Generations – You are 1, your parents 2, grandparents 3 and so on. The benefit of including this is demonstrated below.

RIN = unique identifier numbers in Legacy Family Tree software, which is what I use. Gen = Generation

Step 3 Add your family information

Enter your family group names or individuals, their unique identifier numbers and their generations.

The first in an Excel table assessing the accuracy of your family tree list the surnames and unique identifier numbers
Adding family groups, all generations.

Step 4 Conduct your analysis

Add filter buttons to the columns: Click in Cell A1, click on the Data Tab, then click on the Filter button. This adds a little drop-down arrow to each column.

You can use the drop-down arrows to filter the data using any column. Filter to show only generation 2.

For each column of analysis, examine your family tree and determine if:

  • you have sufficient information
  • you have sufficient source citations for the information
  • the information provides sufficient evidence

Colour the cell based on your analysis:

  • Green means you have sufficient information, citations and evidence
  • Yellow means something is insufficient – perhaps you are missing citations or you have only one source
  • Red means something is wrong – you doubt the information
  • White (no fill) means you have no information for that unit. If the unit is not applicable for a particular family, add N/A.

If you have DNA evidence to support your conclusion, you might like to make that cell dark green instead of light green.

Once all of generation 2 is green then you can change the filter and work on generation 3. When that is finished you move on to generation 4, and so on. This systematic approach helps to ensure that your roots are strong before you move on.

Example analysis of a family tree using Excel, with ten columns colour-shaded based on the outcome of the analysis
Example analysis, generations 3 and 4

Step 5 Update your research plan

Use this analysis to prioritise which parts of your family history need work. Focus on one line at a time and try getting all the cells to go green.


Using Excel to manage searches

I used to think that the mistake I was making with my research was that I was conducting searches that I had already undertaken. I was wrong.

In fact, duplicating your search is a good strategy, in the right circumstances. If you repeat a search you may discover sources that were not available last time you checked. You may also get improved results because your knowledge about the family or about the sources has improved, or because there are new search tools available.

No, the biggest problem with the way most of us search is that we are not systematic enough and we do not make decent notes about what we have searched.

An Excel search plan solves both of these problems and it gathers information that you can then use to create your source citation.

I do not use a search plan all the time, but there are situations where it can be useful. For example, if I am having a lot of trouble finding someone or something, or if there is conflicting evidence and a systematic approach is required to resolve the conflict. A search plan can also be useful if you are researching a location which is unfamiliar to you and you want to be sure you do not miss any important collections.

Step 1 Create your table

A good search plan documents: when, where, what and how. This information can then inform subsequent searches.

Create these columns and format them:

  1. Name
  2. Objective
  3. Date
  4. Repository
  5. Collection
  6. Criteria – date range
  7. Criteria – surname
  8. Criteria – location
  9. Criteria – any other details


Objective – what information are you looking for? Having a specific objective helps you target your search. It determines where you look and what search criteria you use.

Date – the date you searched

Repository – this could be online or offline, e.g. Ancestry or NSW State Library

Collection –repositories gather sources into collections or databases. Which one did you search?

Criteria – which search terms and date ranges did you try?

Eight suggested columns in Excel for a table to manage searches when researching family history
Add your columns, then adjust the column width appropriately

Step 2 Add filters

The main benefit of creating your search plan in Excel is that you can add filters. This helps you manage the data and plan new searches based on what you have already done.

Add filter buttons to each column: Click in Cell A1, click on the Data Tab, then click on the Filter button. This adds a little drop-down arrow to each column.

Two columns of an Excel spreadsheet illustrating drop-down arrows used in filtering data
Add filter buttons

You can use the drop-down arrows to filter the data using any column. You could, for example, filter the plan to show all searches conducted for a particular objective or for a particular repository and/or collection. Do this before you decide on your next search.

Step 3 Create checklists

You often need to conduct similar searches for different people, because they have something in common. You can systematise these searches by creating checklists for different categories.

For example, you might make a checklist of collections to search for everyone who lived in London or a checklist of collections to search for everyone who was transported to Australia as a convict.

Create a new file and then start a new worksheet for each category and save the file. I call mine Search Checklists. Whenever you have a search plan that relates to one of your categories, copy the worksheet for that category from the Search Checklists file to the search plan file for that person.

To copy a worksheet, right click the tab for that worksheet and select Move or Copy, tick the box that says Create a Copy and select the file that you want to copy it to.

If you search the internet you may find that someone has already created a checklist for your category, or has a guide that you can use to create your own. For example, I used the NSW State Archives Convict Guide and the Australia-Convicts page on the FamilySearch Wiki to create this example checklist for convict research.

Extract of an Excel checklist for researching Australian convicts in family history
Extract from an example checklist for convict research

Please note that this is just an example checklist for convicts for demonstration purposes. It is not an exhaustive list of repositories or collections for convict research.

The purpose of a checklist is to suggest collections for searching. You still need to add the actual searches to your search plan.