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.
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- sources that we use less frequently – such as DNA, unpublished archival records, maps, oral history, personal communication, personal reminiscences and social media.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.
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.
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.