Sources and resources

Citing an archival source

One of the challenges when using archives is how to cite their materials as the source of your information. Archival materials are unpublished and come in a wide range of formats. In addition, each archive organises their collections differently, so you need to investigate their organisational system and the identifiers that they use in their catalogue.

Citation format

My usual method for citing sources is to use the following six questions and place the answers in that general order in a citation. This puts the author in first place, which is useful in a bibliography that is sorted alphabetically.

My six question model for source citations:

  1. Whose work is it (author)?      
  2. What is it?                      
  3. Who created it (if not the author)?
  4. Where was it created?
  5. When was it created?
  6. Are there any additional details required to find it again?    

This method does work for archival sources, as shown by the following examples:

An unpublished diary held in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists:

John Augustus Milbourne Marsh, unpublished journal commences 1 September 1848 on ship from England to Australia, Item 2/301, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

A photograph held in the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists:

Anonymous, John Willoughby Bean (b1881 Bathurst NSW Australia), unpublished photograph in album of Edwin and Lucy Bean, Item 6/1165, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

However, some archives suggest a different citation structure. They suggest that the name of the institution or repository be in first place in the citation, followed by descriptor information such as the record series and alphanumerical codes used in their catalogues.

Some, such as the NSW State Archives and the UK National Archives, omit the name of the creator of the source altogether or suggest that the information is optional in a citation. I do not agree with this. It is important in family history to understand who created a source and naming them in a citation should not be optional. It is also important to understand the nature of the source and a citation without the title of the item does not meet our needs.

Putting the repository in first place is not a problem if the creator of the source is clearly named, such as in this example from the NSW State Archives:

NSW State Archives: Supreme Court of NSW, Probate Division; NRS 13660, Probate packets. Series 4-152266 James Smith Hollisen – Date of Death 15/12/1927, Granted On 26/06/1928.

Further guidance

If you are using material from a family history archive, you may be able to gather information to help with your citation by examining other material that was donated with it, and looking for a record of who donated the material and whose family history it belongs to.

Some archives provide guidelines for citing their materials. You should use their guidelines, but bear in mind my suggestions in this article about providing more information about the creator of the materials and a clear description of the materials.

When creating a source citation for archival material, remember the reasons for source citations and include all the necessary information to achieve those purposes. You might like to read my earlier blog posts on this topic: Four good reasons, Part 1; Four good reasons, Part 2.

A few archival guidelines:

National Archives of Australia Fact Sheet No. 7, Citing archival records.

NSW State Archives

UK National Archives

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.


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.