What is a source?

One of the fundamental rules of family history research is that we need to cite our sources. To cite our sources, we need to first understand what is a source and what it is not.

A source is anything that provides information for your family history research.

The most common sources used by genealogists are birth death and marriage records, censuses and electoral rolls, cemetery records, wills and probate records, newspaper articles, criminal and court records, land records, directories, military records and shipping records. Other source types may include books, journal articles, pamphlets, theses, asylum and hospital records. All of these clearly need to be cited if we use information from them.

There are also other types of documents, and even objects, which could be sources for family history. For example, a photograph is a source if it provides information about what a person looked like; maps and plans are sources if they provide information about the location and size of a building; and objects such as military medals, clothing and jewellery are sources if they provide information about a family member. Your grandmother could even be a source, if she tells you stories about your family!

An object can be a source

What about an index? Some argue that an index is just a finding aid, not a source. However, it depends on the index and how you use it. In family history, an index typically provides a little bit of identifying information such as a surname and also some information which you then use to track down sources which provide more information. In such cases, the index is just a finding aid. However, sometimes an index provides additional information, such as a spouse’s name, parents’ names, localities or a death date. If you use that information, then the index is a source. Ideally, the information provided by an index should be treated as a research lead and verified by examining the source on which the index entry is based. Until you do that, however, treat it as a source and include a source citation.

The Ryerson Index

The other ones that confuse people when they are new to family history are websites like Ancestry, Findmypast and FamilySearch. These sites are not sources, so citing information as coming from Ancestry or one of the others is not the correct practice. However, this only means that you do not have a source citation which literally just says ‘Ancestry’. It does not mean that you never cite anything from Ancestry. Ancestry and the other sites are repositories of sources, and those sources do need to be cited.

Book for my webinar about citing sources (30 March 2021) here.


Are the big genealogy sites making us lazy?

Don’t get me wrong – I love the big genealogy sites. Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Findmypast – just to name a few. These sites have given us easy access to an enormous volume of sources. Their collections are invaluable and they are constantly expanding their collections and introducing tools to help us use the collections. However, this ease of access and tools can also work against us as good genealogists.

Photo by Tomas Ryant from

Take source citations, for example. To save us time and help us out, the big sites provide suggested source citations. If we have an online tree on that site, we copy the information across and a source citation is automatically added without us having to do anything much at all. If we prefer to store the information on our own computer, we either type the information into our family tree or download an extract of the source (or both). We can then cut and paste the suggested source citation and add that to the information on our computer.

It is great that they help us in this way, because it reduces the likelihood of family trees without source citations. However, the problem is that this assistance can stop us from examining the sources for ourselves. When we create a source citation, we have to take time and think about what the source really is, who created it and when, and consider the features which help us determine the reliability of the source.

Sources on the big sites are gathered into collections and given a generic name, without all the subtle details of information that tells us more about the features of the source which affect their reliability. Some of us may read the explanatory notes, or use the information provided to track down and examine the original sources. But I suspect that many don’t.

So … slow down and resist the urge to let websites do all your research for you.


Start from a solid foundation

The question that everyone has when researching family history, regardless of whether they are just starting or have been doing it for years, is – where do I start?

For new researchers, the question arises because they are unfamiliar with the process of family history research. For more experienced researchers it is because they have come to realise that there is so much research to do that it becomes overwhelming.

The standard advice given to people who are new to family history research is that you should always start with yourself. Sound advice, because if you start anywhere else you cannot be sure you are researching people who are actually related to you. However, that advice is not helpful past that point, so each time we sit down to do some research we are faced by the same question – where do I start?

The answer is research planning.

Research planning provides you with focus, in the form of research goals, questions or hypotheses; and direction, in the form of a list of tasks, sources and repositories. If you spend time on planning your research, then each time you sit down to do some research you have options for where you can start this time, and a process to keep track of what you have done and what you intend to do next. However, I am not just talking about producing a research plan based on a template, although such a plan is a very useful tool. The research planning process can be anything that helps to make your research more systematic.

A fundamental principle in research planning is that you must always start from the known and move into the unknown, or, as I like to describe it – start from a solid foundation. This means you can start your research from any person in your family history, provided you are sure that the information you have and the conclusions you have reached about that person are sound. This is the principle that underlies the instruction to start with yourself when you are just beginning.

The challenge then becomes identifying and documenting the solid foundation points in your family history so that you can use them as stepping stones for further research.

One method is to choose the person you want to start with (for any reason at all!) and verify that they are a solid foundation. To do this, you need to review all the information you already have and the sources you have already examined, and analyse whether the conclusions you have reached are sufficiently supported by the evidence. Be honest and critical – is the evidence strong, or are there doubts or inconsistencies? If the evidence is weak, then that becomes your first research task – to investigate further. Once you verify that this person is a solid foundation, then you can start moving outwards to research other people. Your first priority should be to move in the direction towards yourself, verifying that each person between your starting person and yourself is also a solid foundation. This confirms how your starting person is related to you.

Another method is to have a document or system that records where the solid foundations occur within your family tree. Each time you feel like researching, you just choose a point from that document or system. You could achieve this using family history software or research plans (and I will discuss these in later posts), but I like to use this simple tool which I call a Tree Health Assessment.

A Tree Health Assessment can be documented quite simply using a family tree chart. To use this method you must start with yourself, regardless of how long you have been researching your family history. As you assess the evidence for each person and their relationship to the previous generation you colour the line or box for that person based on your assessment. Green means the evidence is strong that you have identified the correct person and their relationship to the previous generation (e.g. father and daughter). Yellow means you have some evidence but it needs further research – for example, the evidence may be indirect or circumstantial. Red means that there are issues of concern, such as no sources, information from unreliable sources, inconsistencies or doubts about the conclusions. The solid foundations in your tree are any parts which are coloured green. Your research should always start at a point where the green person links to a yellow or red line or box (shown as a blue X in the example below). However, take care not to leap into researching a red coloured person if there are yellow ones between them and yourself, as the answers may lie in turning the yellow into a solid foundation first.


Documenting your family history

Documenting your family history is not just about creating a family tree and citing your sources. Documentation is an essential element in all aspects of family history.

The first step when you begin your family history is to look at what you already know and talk to immediate family to find out what they know. Obviously, you have to document that in some way so that you can use it to move forward. What’s the best way to do that? Perhaps start drawing a family tree, showing how people are related to each other and the key facts such as birth, marriage and death dates. But family stories may provide a lot more information than can be recorded in a tree. You could use oral history techniques, record their stories and then transcribe them. Or make your own notes and add your own observations.

When you want to start gathering information from other sources you will need to think about how you are going to document that too. Not the information – not yet. First you need to document your research plan. What information are you looking for and why? Which family story do you want to investigate, or which person in the family do you want to know more about? Then, when you start gathering the information you need to document that too. Again, you could use the family tree and create more notes. Or you might try recording the information using family history software. The software takes a lot of the hard work out of documentation, by providing templates, citation guidance and standard charts and reports to print out.

Finally, when you have gathered the information and answered your research questions, how are you going to share that information with other people? What if your research does not agree with the research of someone else – how will you convince them that your research findings are sound?

The skill of documentation is an essential one for family history. I will be lecturing on this topic at the Society of Australian Genealogists this Saturday, 12 December, as Part 3 of the Family History Fundamentals online course. Further lectures will be held in 2021 on documentation, analysis and research planning. Visit to book.