Fix those missing source citations

It’s important to set aside time to update your family tree by adding source citations to information that does not have any.

If you have been researching for a long time or have not been conscientious about adding sources as you go, then you may have a lot of work to catch up on. To make this seemingly endless task achievable, you should break it into smaller chunks – perhaps one hour a week or fortnight. Don’t forget to measure your progress – seeing that number of missing source citations dropping is motivation to keep at it!

If you use family history software, you should be able to find a feature that tells you which information in your tree currently has no source citations attached. In Legacy, for example, under the Search tab select Find, then select Missing Sources. You can search for people who have no sources, or are missing source citations on one or more items. You can also narrow your search for people who are missing specific types of source citations, such as sources for the death date and place. Click on Create List to generate a list. You can work through the list from this interface, or click the Options button then select Print. That gives you the option of saving the list as a PDF or as a CSV file. I prefer the CSV format because I can open it in Excel and mark them off as I complete the citations.

If your tree is online with Ancestry, FamilySearch or another site, you will need to impose your own structure to work through your tree systematically adding source citations. One way to make it manageable might be to work on one surname at a time, starting from yourself and working backwards in time.

Of course not all sources are equal in quality and there is also the question of how many sources you need to cite, but those are issues for discussion at another time. One source is better than none, two independent sources are better, and if you find more then it’s time to celebrate.

Choose a method works for you and get stuck into it. The benefits are worth it!

Four good reasons to cite your sources – Part 2

Reason No. 3: To acknowledge the work of others

If we use the work or ideas of another person in our family history research then we need to acknowledge their work, and source citations are a good way to do that.

If you present the work or ideas of others in a way that suggests that it is your own work then you are committing plagiarism. Failing to acknowledge the work of others is not a big deal if you do not present the results of your research to others. However, you do need to cite your sources if you put your research online, or include it in a book, essay, thesis or journal article. A source citation is needed when you quote from another work; include ideas or the work of another researcher; or if you include data, images or media produced by someone else.

Just because someone has researched the same family as you, it does not always mean that you have to acknowledge their research. If you extract information from their research, then verify it using original or reliable derivative sources, then it is those sources that you cite, not their research. This is because the information is not their creative property. However, if they wrote a story about their family based on the information, then that story is their creative property and needs to be acknowledged with a source citation. In such cases, copyright may also apply and you may need to seek their permission to reproduce it.

Reason No. 4: To help you analyse the source

One of the most important and often overlooked reasons to cite your sources is that doing so helps you analyse the source, and this improves the quality of your research.

Writing a source citation forces you to examine the source more closely. You have to consider the nature of the source and why it was created. You have to identify who created the source and where it was created. You also have to identify if there is anyone with creative property rights – such as an author or a photographer. And, if it is an unpublished source, you also have to think carefully about the details required to help someone find the source for themselves.

All of the information gathered for the purpose of citing a source helps us to understand the information in the source and increases the likelihood that we will interpret the source and the information accurately.

[The image used here is believed to be in the Public Domain, but a citation won’t hurt: Harrison Fisher, Fair Americans, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911]

Four good reasons to cite your sources – Part 1

Putting more effort into citing your sources is one of the most important things that you can do to improve your family history research.

Reason No. 1: So that you can find the source again

You may well ask ‘Why would I need to find the source again? I have extracted all the information I need and I have a copy saved onto my computer.’

Even the best researcher may miss some information, copy information inaccurately, or misinterpret information in a source. Taking time with a source, reading it thoroughly and making good notes can reduce but not eliminate the risk of these things happening. Taking a copy is useful but it does not solve the problem, because the copy that we make is usually just part of the source. It usually does not have the contextual information that may affect how the source is interpreted – for example, we may not copy title page or the page with the abbreviations on it. Examining a source again is the only solution to these problems.

When we examine a source, we do it from the perspective of what we already know about a family or locality and with a specific research question in mind. That information and that question affect how we read and interpret the source, and they influence what information we record and the pages or sections of the source that we copy. Later, when we have learned more about the family or locality or we have a different research question, the source should be examined again from the new perspective.

So, not only will you want to look at a source again, you should look at it again. So make sure you cite it.

Reason No. 2: So that others can find the source that you used

You may well ask, ‘Why should I bother helping other people with their research?’

And I’d ask, ‘Do you use other people’s research? Or do you just rely entirely on original sources?’

I don’t know how it works in other countries, but in Australia it is extremely rare to have access to original sources for family history. We rely heavily on digital images of original sources and derivative sources, including the work of other researchers. So, if we expect others to provide source citations to help us then we should do the same.

Helping others also means that you are helping yourself, because collaborating on research provides substantial benefits. The people that want to use your research are probably related to you in some way or they have similar research interests. They may have information that you do not have, or access to sources that you cannot access. Or, when they use your source citation to find the source, you may find that they have different insights into the information that could also benefit your research. If you help them by providing a source citation, you may find that they will help you in return.

Collaboration is good research practice. Help others by citing your sources.

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 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.