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sources that we use less frequently – such as DNA, unpublished archival records, maps, oral history, personal communication, personal reminiscences and social media.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.
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.
Errors in historical sources are one of the main reasons why family histories become inaccurate.
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.
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.
Deliberate alteration or omission of information.
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
Check that source again
Analyse the source and the information more thoroughly – see my other articles about analysing sources
Check different versions of that same source
Compare the information in that source to other sources about same person
Compare the information in those sources to other sources about the family
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.
Maps are symbolic representations of places. So how can we interpret them to inform our family history?
Maps can be extremely useful in family history, but they are a little underutilised. Perhaps if we learned how to understand them better, we could get more use out of them.
Maps can, of course, show where your ancestors lived and the features around these places. Knowledge of nearby features, such as mountains, rivers, forests, roads, railways and big towns, can reveal details of ancestral lives. For example, mountains tend to impede travel, while roads and railways facilitate it. Big towns may be where baptisms and marriages took place and where records may still be found.
Maps can provide information about the distance between places, allowing you to assess the likelihood that your ancestors moved between them. By studying a chronological series of maps, you may be able to determine how a settlement has changed over time, when something was built, when boundaries changed and identify how the names of places have changed.
Context and provenance
Examining the context and provenance of a source is always important, but for maps it is particularly so. As maps are symbolic representations of a place we cannot interpret them effectively unless we understand who made them, when and why.
A map is an image of a place at a particular time, but it is nothing like a photograph. Reducing the details of a place to fit on a page means some features are omitted. The choice of what to include and what to omit depends on the purpose of the map.
The context of maps is spatial, chronological and cultural. Spatial, because a map represents just a portion of the earth and it helps to know where the map sits within the broader landscape. Chronological, because the map represents a place in time and without knowledge of which time the map is pretty useless. Cultural, because culture influences the purpose of the map, and the symbols and conventions used.
When exploring the context and provenance of a map, look for information about both the creator of the map and the publisher. Try to find the date that it was created and the date that it was published – these two dates could vary considerably. It is also important to consider whether the creator of the map had primary knowledge of the place or has based the map on other sources.
Why was the map created? What was the creator trying to achieve? This information will help you determine biases or intentional deceptions reflected in the map, and also help you interpret the symbols.
No maps contain details of every feature. They omit details and they simplify features. Be aware of this and consider the implications for any conclusions you are drawing from the map.
Mapping conventions exist and if they have been applied to the map they will assist your analysis. The title may help you identify the purpose, location and date. There may be a north arrow or compass rose to help you orientate, or if not, perhaps north is at the top of the map. If a scale is included, that will help you judge distances, however, not all maps contain scales. Even worse, maps may employ different scales in different parts of the map. Look for a legend or key to the symbols used. If there is none, examine similar maps and see if the legend on those maps help.
Although it will be difficult to determine, try to find out the source of the data used to compile the map. Maps may be original or derivative sources. They may be produced by a surveyor based on their own research in the field, or derived from other maps, photos, drawings and descriptions.
Maps can provide valuable information for your family history, such as the distance between two places. You will need to make a judgement call in each circumstance to determine whether a map is the best source to cite for that information. In some cases, additional sources will be needed, while in others, an old map may be the only evidence available.
More and more maps are being made available online. This is fantastic for family history, because digital images are often rich in content and the technology makes it easy to navigate around the map and zoom in on the features of interest.
Extracts of maps are a great way to illustrate your family history. Vast numbers of old maps are available with no copyright restrictions. When using newer maps, take care to examine both copyright and licensing restrictions that may apply.
Title and/or description (including location), date and/or edition, creator, repository
For online maps, you might add the URL
Parish of Arding, County of Sandon, 4th edn, Lands Department, 27 September 1926, Mitchell Library Parish Maps
Millions of sources for family history are made available online every day. The providers of these sources often gather them into collections or databases, to help people like us access them. Unfortunately, the ease of accessing databases can fool us into thinking we can use them quickly and not spend time analysing them.
Anyone can place a database of family history sources on the internet, without peer review or quality control. Some repositories have considerable funds to manage their databases, while others are managed by individuals. This means that the quality of databases varies considerably, as does the method by which they make them available.
Context and provenance
The first step with any source is to examine the context and provenance. For an online database this means we ask questions such as: Where is the database hosted? Who created the website? Who created the database? Why did they create it, when and how? Who is the audience? Does the website clearly identify which sources are contained in the database and where they came from?
To find out more about an online database, read any available bios about the creator(s), descriptions of the database, introductions and explanatory notes, and lists of abbreviations. If this information is not available, you will need to be more cautious when using the database as it will be more difficult to assess the reliability of the information.
Databases contain sources, but each database is unique in content and format. They also change over time, so this analysis may need to be conducted more than once.
After identifying the types of sources in the database (for example, birth records, baptism records), there are two more critical steps. First you need to establish whether they are complete sources, image extracts of the sources, or information that has been transcribed from the sources.
Next you need to determine the sources on which the database is based – I call these the ‘originating sources’. Sources in online databases may be based on original sources (the first version of a source), derivative sources (sources derived from other sources), or a mixture of both.
Next, examine the coverage of the database. Which places are included, which time periods and are there some categories excluded?
Do not just rely on the title of the database for this information. For example, a collection called ‘Australian Birth Records Index 1788-1922’ is misleading. Civil registration did not commence until 1856 in New South Wales (and on other dates in the other states), so there cannot possibly be any 1788 birth records in the database. In addition, just because a database title or description says that it includes a particular date range, it does not mean that it actually includes all the sources for that date range. A good quality online repository will provide specific information about the coverage if you make the effort to read the description or explanatory notes.
Another thing to check for is whether the repository is updating and adding to the collection. If that is the case, it is worth checking back again later to search the database again.
If the coverage of a database does not meet your needs, always check other repositories for similar collections as they may have a wider coverage.
Many databases have been indexed and some databases are comprised solely of an index without copies of the actual sources. This is what I was alluding to above when I suggested you check if the database contains information that has been transcribed from the sources. Some genealogists suggest that an index is just a finding aid, not a source and that it should never be cited. I disagree. If you extract information from it then it is a source and you should cite it. How else are you or another researcher going to track down the originating source if you do not do so? However, I do agree that an index is not the best source and you should always endeavour to track down the originating source and use that.
Information and evidence
Now you can examine the information within the source and the evidence it provides. The approach to doing so is the same as for any other source. Key questions: What information is provided, how is it expressed and how is it formatted? Are there gaps in the information? Are there any explanatory notes, what do the headings mean, do you understand all the terminology and abbreviations? Who were the informants, is the information primary or secondary, what is the quality? Does the information provide direct, indirect or negative evidence?
The key thing to remember for online databases is that this information may not necessarily be visible when you are viewing the source or entry – you may have to go searching elsewhere for it, either within that database, elsewhere on the website or even in another place.
Using the source
There are different ways to extract information from an online database. Usually this involves taking a copy, transcribing the information or attaching the source to your online family tree. There are a few things to watch out for here.
If you are making a copy or transcribing the information, you should also create a source citation and make a copy of the description of the database as these will be helpful for your analysis. If available, it is a good idea to make copies of the cover pages and any explanatory pages.
Check for any copyright or usage conditions that may apply, which will largely be dependent on whether you are planning to publish or just using the information for your own research. If you are transcribing the information, it is a good idea to make an image copy as well, in case you make errors in your transcription.
Do not just examine the entry that came up in your search. Always look at the surrounding entries in the database and you may wish to make copies of those as well. You might find related entries or entries with additional information that will assist you in the interpretation of your entry.
When you find an entry within a database, some sites provide hints to other entries or other databases for a person with the same or similar name. These can be useful research leads but take care to analyse the other entry carefully to establish for yourself whether they are actually the same person.
Not all online databases can be searched. With some you need to browse the entries. Browsing can also be useful for searchable databases, because the effectiveness of searching is limited by the search engine and the search criteria that you enter.
Citing online databases
You must cite the source that you used, which means the database. Do not just cite the website where you found the database, as that will not help you or others find it again; nor will it help anyone evaluate the reliability of the information extracted from the database. However, the website does need to be mentioned in the citation.
As our purpose of citing a source includes tracking down the originating sources, information about the originating source(s) needs to be included as well.
Website, name of database, website address, date accessed, description of entry; details to help you find it again; originating source
FamilySearch, “England Bishop’s transcripts,” database (www.FamilySearch.org: accessed 21 Jun 2016), entry for Frances, daughter of Peter & Frances Hawkins; St Nicholas Church, Brighton, Sussex, FHL film no. 1,468,821, page 186, no. 1481; citing West Sussex Record Office, Chichester, no.: EP II/16/27A-M.
Newspapers are well recognised as a valuable source of information for family history and much is written about where to find them and how to search them. It is also important to know how to use them and that is the focus of this article.
Perhaps the main reason we use newspapers in family history is that they often provide information we may not find in other types of sources, such the names of extended family members, descriptions of events other than birth death or marriage, and even physical descriptions of the people we are researching. This information can be a useful supplement to the information we already have, or it may even help to corroborate or refute conclusions about people or events.
Newspapers also provide valuable historical context and social information, which helps us understand the times that our ancestors lived in. Interpreting newspapers gives us an insight into the events and forces shaping their lives, the beliefs and view points of that time period, language, customs and lifestyles.
Tips for using newspapers
Before analysing the newspaper item itself you need to analyse the newspaper that it came from, as this provides valuable contextual information that influences how you read and understand the item.
What newspaper is it? Where was it published? Over what timeframe? How widely circulated was it – was it a local paper, a regional paper, statewide, national? Local newspapers tend to have greater knowledge of local places, people and events, while national newspapers tend to have greater knowledge of national and world events. If your newspaper item is an article, rather than a notice or advertisement, it may be worth investigating who published it, their values and perspectives, and the intended audience for the newspaper.
Now you have the context you can analyse the newspaper item itself.
What type of item is it and what was the purpose? A family notice was published to notify family and friends of an important event, such as a birth, marriage, death or funeral. Obituaries and memoriums had similar functions. Other types of newspaper items that may be useful for family history are advertisements, legal notices, notices of auctions and land sales, police notices and articles. The purpose provides an insight into the accuracy of the information and also hints at the possibility of other newspaper items or other types of sources that may exist for the same event.
If the author is identified, consider their background and their motivations in writing the item. Are they trying to persuade, incite, enlighten, explain, deceive, inform? Is the author describing what happened or providing an opinion?
When was the item written in relation to the event? Most of the items listed above will be contemporary with the event, but articles may be written years or even decades after the event and this information is critical to our interpretation of the article. Some items may be a contemporary reprint and this could be important to know. A regional or national paper may reprint an item from a local paper. Changes may be made to the information during this process, so in these situations it would be a good idea to track down the original item in the local paper.
Changes to a newspaper item may also occur during the process of making it accessible to researchers. Are you viewing the original paper, an image of the paper, or a manual or OCR (optical character recognition) transcription? If the content is critical to your research it might be worth examining multiple versions of the same item.
If possible, identify where the author of the item got their information. Was the author an eye witness to the event (primary information) or is the information secondary? Who was the informant and how likely are they to have accurate information?
Read the newspaper item critically and with scepticism. Highlight any words or phrases that might indicate bias or intention, or give a clue to the authenticity. Remember that newspapers do print fiction and opinion pieces, and sensationalise to boost readership.
If there is a photo or image, analyse that separately and investigate how it relates to the rest of the newspaper item.
After you have analysed the item, return to the context and consider that again in more detail. Look for other items in that newspaper and in other papers that may shed more light on your item or help you to understand it better, and then compare the information from your newspaper item with information from other sources. If you found your newspaper item in a collection, examine that collection for other newspaper items or pieces of information that may be related. The article above about Mr Dean, for example, is just one of many in the Society of Australian Genealogists’ Dennes Collection about Scottish settlers in the Manning and Clarence Rivers region.
Tips on caring for newspapers
Usually the newspaper itself is not intrinsically valuable, so the best way to conserve newspaper clippings is to digitise them. If you do want to keep newspapers or clippings, keep them away from valuable original documents and photographs as the newspaper ink can damage them. Store newspapers flat in an archival box or folder. For added protection you could place acid free paper between the pages. Fragile pieces can be placed in archival sleeves.
Citing newspaper items
The usual practice for a Bibliography is to just list the titles of newspapers used. A footnote needs to provide a full citation. The format is: Author, article heading, title of paper, details of issue, page, column. If author is unknown, put Anon.
How and where to find newspapers
To maximise your results, use a combination of searching, browsing, using indexes and using collections that others have compiled.