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How to Cite Sources

by John Wylie
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Recording Where Your Find Information
How to cite everything from web sites and e-mails to newspaper articles to personal letters. Find out why citing your sources in an essential part of genealogy.

Realtors have an axiom — location, location, and location. The genealogical corollary to that is — documentation, documentation, and documentation. Family group sheets, GEDCOM files and any other form used to share genealogical information should be as fully documented as formal manuscripts. Even those who have no intention of submitting their work to a journal or of publishing a book will swap information with "genealogy cousins." Thus, it is essential that the software you use to record your work handles source citations well.

Experienced genealogists agree that accurately recording the full citation data from a source the first time is essential. You may vividly remember those first few finds; but, as more and more information is gathered, details blur, contradictory data is found and memory is not sufficient. Nor is it sufficient to declare, "I wouldn't have written it down if it weren't true." Whether the source is a probate court record, a yellowed newspaper clipping, grandfather's diary, or a conversation with your father, cite your sources. Whether you take notes on a computer, hand-write them, make copies on a copier or dictate them into a tape recorder, practicality, credibility, and ethics require careful source citations. Most of us must also admit that we've occasionally neglected to do that and had to backtrack — time and effort we'd rather have spent seeking new information. Make every effort to note all of the elements of a source while it is still in your hands.

Sources Versus Citations

Before we get into the details of how to cite sources, let's take a brief look at genealogy. The genealogical research process involves finding our ancestors by collecting sources that, when combined with our own knowledge, skills, and intuition, result in evidence from which we draw conclusions. The most important cited conclusions are parent-to-child links. To be of value to others, and later on, to ourselves, the process must be thorough, disciplined, recorded, and reported.

A source is the record, however obscure or informal, from which we get our information. A citation is the link that connects a source to our conclusion. Genealogy is not a creative art, where we let our imaginations run wild. We can do that when we're trying to understand why an ancestor did something, but not when we're recording what was done.

Citations may be embedded in parentheses within the text, shown as footnotes (at the bottom of each page) or as endnotes (same as footnotes but at the end of a chapter or at the end of the work), I like to use embedded footnotes in my research notebook, or in brief reports that I send to fellow researchers. Otherwise, I prefer my citations to be shown as endnotes.

Sources can also be listed in a Bibliography (or reference) section in bibliographic style. Entries in the Bibliography do not contain locators (page numbers) and are not linked to specific information and thus are not substitutes for citations.

Citations are links between a recorded event and one of the sources used as evidence to support our recorded conclusions about that event. To be effective, citations must be complete and consistent. While you don't have to use one of the accepted forms for citations, a decision to use your "own" style is likely to communicate a lack of discipline or lack of understanding, either of which may cause readers to discount the validity of your work. Some of the more respected style guides are listed in the resources section at the end of this article. The citation forms used in this article are taken mostly from The Chicago Manual of Style (for traditional sources) and the Modern Language Associates (MLA) style guides found online.

How Are Sources Cited?

The Basic Format

Here is the basic format for traditional citations. It has four descriptors in the following order:

Author, Title, Publisher, Locator.Or in greater detail: Author(s), Article Title, Publication title, (Publisher place, Publisher name, Year published), Page number(s).

Let's take this part by part:

  • Author: List up to three authors in the order their names appear on the title page of the work. For works with more than three authors, list only the first author and add "et al" [without the quotation marks]. In a work comprised of a collection of chapters by separate authors, such as The Source, use the form for periodicals.

  • Title: For a periodical or collection of works, first list the article's title then the publication's title. Article titles are shown in quotations and publication titles in italics.

  • Publisher: List the city, state, and country (the state is optional if the city is obvious and country is optional if your work is to be shared within one country), followed by the publisher's business name. These are almost always shown on the title page or the reverse of the title page of a book. If the publisher is not shown, list the place information (if known) and say "published by author" (as is often the case with family histories). For works published by the author, include the postal address if it is listed in the work.

  • Locator: This is usually page number(s), but in legal and reference works, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, it may be paragraph numbers.

  • Annotations: These are optional comments by you about the source. Place them in square brackets (the nearly universal symbol for author comments). They may address the credibility and reliability of the source, your rationale for the conclusion(s) made from the source(s) or some other comment of value to the reader or later to yourself. I annotate almost all citations. I do this with software that allows me to selectively exclude the annotations in any report. While I could use research notes for these annotations, I find it more productive and easier to simply use the citation feature of my software.

  • Missing data: Indicate missing data using the following abbreviations: for no date, use "n.d."; for no publisher, use "n.p."; for no author use "__________" [10 underlines].

Some of the formats and styles that have become traditional were based on efforts to save time and effort in retyping drafts and in telling the Linotype operator what fonts and formats to use. The personal computer has changed this. For example, we need not use abbreviations as much (or at all) because the better genealogical software applications allow us to type information on a source only once and then use it as many times as we need it. Avoiding abbreviations not only makes our work much more readable, it reduces the opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication.

More Specifically...

Published Sources
First, list the author; second, list the title; then, the publisher and publication date. Last, list page numbers, and if you choose to make an author annotation, place this in brackets. List multiple authors in the same order as shown on the title page unless there are more than three authors, in which case, show only the first author and add "et al" [without the quotation marks].

Single Author Book
Helen Kelly Brink, Some of the Descendants of Asa Phillips (1793-1844); Who were Born in Vermont and Who Settled in Steuben County, New York in 1802, (Marco Island, Florida, By the Author, 1992) p.34.

Single Author Article
Fannie Clifton, "Some Brixey and Clifton History." The Brixey Bulletin (Garland, Texas, Brixey-Wylie Press), 2:4 (Fall 1992), pp. 39-40.

Newspaper Item
Charles G. Ferris obituary, Van Wert, Ohio, Van Wert Weekly Bulletin, 21 September 1888, p. 4, col. 3.

Unpublished Sources

Citing unpublished sources is equally important; and because follow researchers cannot pull a book from the shelf to verify your data, it is even more critical that your citation be specific. Each citation should identify the informant, the place, the date, and the information given, plus to whom it was given and where that information is stored. Comments describing the informant's reliability may be added. The elderly gentleman in the example below was described as "still alert and active," because some his age are not. Note that, since the cited letter belongs to someone else, permission to use it was requested, granted, and stated.

Personal Letter
Herbert E. Wylie, Letter to James Wylie, 15 May 1958. [The original handwritten letter is in the possession of James Wylie, Laingsburg, Michigan. Letter used with permission. Herbert was living in the Methodist Retirement Home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when the letter was written. He was 84 years old, alert and physically active.]

Oral Interview
Laurence V. Wylie, William C. Wylie and Gladys (Pomeroy) Wylie. Oral interview, 1 January 1982, by John V. Wylie at Laurence's home in Destin, Florida. Tape recording and partial transcription in the possession of John Wylie, Garland, Texas.

Photograph of Wylie Reunion, 1958, Lumberjack State Park, Michigan. Taken by Laurence V. Wylie, July 1958. Copy in possession of John Wylie, Garland, Texas.

Unexplained Notes
"Hon. Henry C. Wylie, Citizen Extraordinare," undated clipping from an unidentified newspaper, in family papers of William Calvin Wylie of Holton, Michigan; inherited 1988 by his son James Calvin Wylie of Laingsburg, Michigan; in possession of James Wylie. [References to Henry C. Wylie indicate this article was probably written in the 1920s, as he was not appointed to the Bench until 1921 and resigned in 1933.]

Official Records

Vital Records
Death Certificate for Jacob F. Rost, 24 September 1924, File No. 28093, Missouri State Board of Health. Certified copy in possession of author.

Certificate of Marriage, Edward H. Wigal to Velma G. King, 12 June 1912, Wood County, West Virginia. County Recorder's Office, Parkersburg, West Virginia. Copy in possession of Kelly Collier, Arlington, Texas.

Census Record
1850 United State Census (Free Schedule), Pitt Township, Wyandot County, Ohio; p. 233, family 86, dwelling 79, lines 967-977; June 1, 1850; National Archives Microfilm M-19, Roll 719. [This was a particularly readable film.]

Legal Record
Deed of Sale from William Brixey and wife to Thomas Brixey, 9 January 1869 (filed 14 June 1869), Webster County, Missouri, Deed Book D, page 703. County Recorder's Office, Marshfield, Missouri.

Online Sources

Citing online or other technology sources is a special case, although the basics still apply. Remember that the implied factors for traditional source citations do not apply and we must be literal to help others find the work.

Digital sources differ from hard copy sources only in that citations to them must include instructions for others to find the cited file. For example:

Ancestral File Extract
Moses Wylie-Mary Clark family group sheet (undocumented); ancestral file number B8RM-MT and B8RM-RT, Ancestral File, version 4.13 (1994), Family History Library, Salt Lake City. [All information on Moses WYLIE in this file was consistent with that proven by other sources.]

Scanned Image File
Birth Certificate of John Smith, Greyson County, Alabama Birth Book 19, Certificate #12345. Image file "smith123.tif" scanned at Greyson, Alabama, 7 September 1994 by William Lincoln [<> and 5678 High Street, Lincoln, Nebraska 67890.] [Image has been digitally retouched by William Tell of Tacoma, Washington <> in July 1995 to remove artifacts. Data not known to have been changed. File provided to author by Mr. Tell in July 1995.]

Email Message
William Shakespeare, [<> or c/o Globe Theater, London, England], "Birth of John Smith," Message to author, 12 September 1993 [This message cites Shakespeare's personal files and states that he has in his possession a photocopy of the birth certificate of John Smith.]

Listserve Message
Bill Clinton [<> or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC 20022]. "Smith, John. 1929-VA, CA, NY." on <>. 18 October 1995. [Copy available at <>.]

Web Site File
Ted Kennedy [<> or 2345 Any Street, Anytown, Maryland, 12345]. "My Smith Genealogy." <> August 1996. [This file contains numerous hyper-links, with three in the Smith section. On 21 December 1996, these three were checked and found to be active but with no additional Smith data.]

Newsgroup Article
William Wylie <> and 235 Evergreen Lane, Anytown, Maryland, 12345]. "My New York Smiths" in soc.genealogy.methods, 12 July 1995.

Extract from CD-ROM File CD-ROM #319, Ed. 1, Census Index: U.S. Selected State/Counties, 1870, Date of Import: 11 January 1996. Individual: Longcor, Lucinda. County/State: Wabasha County, Minnesota: Lake City. Page #: 030. Year: 1870.

Whenever material in a citation is not obvious, an explanation in the annotation is appropriate. In some cases I have provided both an email address and an URL (Uniform Resource Locator). Also a postal address is included when available, as email addresses tend to change more often.

As one of the most knowledgeable genealogists in America, Helen Leary, says, sharing your genealogy without citing sources is like sending it into the world naked. Unless you tell others where you obtained your material, your work is only opinion and weak opinion at that. The hundreds or thousands of hours you spent putting your family history together won't be respected unless you show your sources. No genealogical work should rest solely on the reputation of the author.

Sources establish credibility. That is, if we fail to cite sources, our friends and relatives may be charitably interested, but others will consider our work a waste of time or, at best, a clue. Citing sources is no longer important, it is essential.

One Last Point — Use YOUR Sources

A citation must cite the source you used, not the one that someone told you existed in their citation. Another person's research, even cited, is hearsay you until you see the source for yourself. For example, if a cousin tells you that she extracted your grandfather's birth information from his birth certificate, then your cousin is your source for the information, unless she provided you a photocopy, a scanned copy, or you actually saw her copy of the certificate. This is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts of genealogical research for many to accept.

Family history research is maturing as a discipline. We must learn to be more thorough in our publishing and sharing. Documentation is as essential to genealogy as it is to any other publishing endeavor. It is never to late to start citing sources. It's not difficult, do it now!


__________, The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, The University of Chicago, 1993. [This is "The" authoritative source, known as "CMS", for guidance on citing sources, including many recently developed sources. While this edition doesn't go as far in dealing with new technologies as one would hope, it is as current as one can get without using technical writing guides. When you cite CMS, you know you're safe. See Chapter 15 for detailed discussions of endnotes and footnotes.]

Hatcher, Patricia Law, Producing a Quality Family History, Ancestry, Inc., Salt Lake City, 1996. [This work is well on its way to becoming a classic and is an essential reference for those writing a family history, whether a brief article or a full-blown book.]

Lackey, Richard S., Cite Your Sources — A Manual for Documenting Family Histories and Genealogical Records, University of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi, 1980. [This is the basic and most accepted guide for documenting sources in genealogy. It is very useful, though technological advances since 1980 are not addressed. While the form of citation is correct, it was written before word processors were used and the font styles are no longer in use.]

Mills, Elizabeth Shown, Evidence, Citation, and Analysis for the Family Historian, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, Maryland, n.d. [This soon-to-be-published work by the editor of The National Genealogical Society's Quarterly is expected to become the "new Lackey" for genealogists citing sources.]

Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Leubking, The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Ancestry, Inc., Salt Lake City, 1997. [The first chapter of this updated classic should be required reading for all genealogists, new and old. It details basic principals of genealogical research including a well stated argument for thorough source citation.]

Stevenson, Noel C., Genealogical Evidence, Revised Edition, Agean Park Press, Laguna Hills, CA 1989. [This excellent discussion by an acclaimed attorney and Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists forms the basis for evaluating genealogical evidence. Stevenson outlines healthy skepticism and points out many of the pitfalls to avoid when evaluating genealogical sources.]

Turabian, Kate L., A Manual for Writers, 5th Ed., The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987. [Turabian's guide has been a standard in both undergraduate and graduate schools for more than 30 years. It remains useful, but is getting less so as technology sources become more commonplace. It is particularly helpful for sources not listed by Lackey or the CMS.]

About the Author
As a lecturer, writer and tutor, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Wylie's specialty is teaching computer skills to genealogists and genealogical skills to computer users. He serves on the National Genealogical Society's Standards Committee, the Federation of Genealogical Societies/Dallas Genealogical Society's Local Planning Committee and the Dallas Genealogical Society Records Preservation Committee. Other activities include serving as a forum manager for Everton's OnLine Service; co-authoring the NGS special publication: Indexing Family Histories: Simple Steps to a Quality Product with Patricia Law Hatcher and, with his wife Barbara, Memoranda of Marriages Solemnized by Herbert E. Wylie 1915-1924 and Herbert E. Wylie's Journal 1884-1890.

His speaking experience includes ten national conferences and state, regional and local genealogical groups throughout New England and the Midwest and as a frequent guest and a co-host on the "Family History Radio Show." Also a member of APG, his articles have been published by Genealogical Computing, Journal of Online Genealogy, and numerous other genealogical publications.

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How-To Article: Why Bother? The Value of Documentation in Family History Research
How-To Article: Sourcing — The Key to Your Family History Detective Work
Ask an Expert: How to Share Your Family File — Understanding Copyright

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