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Overheard on the Message Boards: Citing Sources You Find Online
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

October 24, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I realize that genforum postings are not as good as primary sources but often it is the first time you see the information. I'm trying to figure out how to cite Genforum postings. Are the message numbers stable? If I cite message number 12521 on the Taylor forum, can I go back to that same message number a year from now and still find the original posting? -- Lyn

A: Your message brings up a couple of important points in the way so many are researching their ancestry with today's varied electronic sources. First, all of the sources that we find online require a new form of source citation. Second is the issue of permanence. There is always a question as to whether the resources we are using today will be there tomorrow.

First, let me say that I support citing any record or resource that you use in your research. So, if you find something in the message on a message board, then that message should definitely be cited, at least until you find original documents to support the same thing.

Always cite your source, no matter what it is.

Why Bother? No One Will See It

During the National Genealogical Society's Conference in the States, that was held in May of this year in Milwaukee, I was asked to talk on the citing of electronic sources. The talk was designed to supply possible ideas as to how to properly cite the source. About half way through the lecture, someone questioned why anyone should bother citing electronic sources (such as message boards, mail lists, or personal e-mails) because those messages would not be around in a hundred years and no one else may be able to see the message.

My response was that the citing of a source didn't really have anything to do with whether or not a person could see it later, but in allowing other researchers to be able to evaluate the research that was done. Ideally we would like to view the same record or message as the researcher who posted the information and cited the source in the first case, but even when it comes to land and vital records, we have found that they are not always available later on. Misfiling and fires are two reasons why a record that existed, and was viewed by a researcher, may no longer be available.

Ideally, as I said, we would like to view the exact bulletin board message or Web site that someone else has used and incorporated into an ancestry that has now been shared either on the Web or in a book. The reality though is that we will not always be able to view that source. This situation is not limited to the Web, though. How many of us have cited a personal letter from a cousin as a source? We have that letter, and unless we donate our research files somewhere, the odds are that no one else will be able to see that letter either. However, as researchers see my information posted online and view the sources that I have cited, they can see that some of the information I have incorporated has come from a bulletin board message or perhaps a personal letter. They know that I have not as yet verified this information primary documents, such as a death certificate or a baptismal record. This does not mean that I shouldn't still cite the source.

The sources that are cited should just help the researcher who comes upon the posted information, offering a possible place for him to double check the information posted. In the end though the present researcher may have access to more reliable documents, or may take the time to visit the county courthouse or get microfilms through the Family History Library.

With this said, there are some items to keep in mind when citing an electronic source, such as a bulletin board message or another person's Web site.

Citing Internet Sources

The point of citing a source is to make it possible for another researcher to turn right to the page in question and find the entry you were relying on. To this end, the idea is to cite as much as necessary.

Bulletin Board Message: Message by Rhonda R. McClure "Re: Federal Census County Index in USA" rhondam@genealogy.com, bulletin board message to General Genealogy Forum, http://genforum.genealogy.com/gen/messages/13307.html, posted 1 April 2002. Printed out 6 June 2002.

A look at the above sample shows that I have included:

  • the name of the person who posted the message
  • the title of the message, as it appeared on the bulletin board
  • the e-mail address of the person posting the message
  • the name of the bulletin board where the message was posted
  • the URL of the exact message
  • the date the message was posted
  • the date it was printed out by the researcher.

The above example of a source citation contains the information found on the message itself. I use the name of the person as I find it on the message, so if they have given only their first name or a nickname, then I use this. There are those who suggest that you should include the person's full name and postal address, but given the concern of identity theft, I do not include this information. There are those who also question including the e-mail address of the person in question. Usually, when it comes to a bulletin board or a mailing list, you will find that the e-mail address is easily found. If you are concerned, you could eliminate the e-mail address, the other information should make it identifiable on the message board in question and those interested can get the e-mail address from the board message itself.

Other Electronic Sources

Here are a few other sample source citations of commonly used sources, to aid you in the citing of these important sources.

Mailing List: Message by Rhonda McClure, "Daniel MCCLAIN, PA 1749" rhondam@thegenealogist.com, listserve message to McClain List <McClain-L@rootsweb.com>, 4 July 1999.Printout dated 5 July 1999.

Electronic Database: Rhonda McClure, compiler, "Joshua B. Whitney - Phebe family group sheet" (undocumented); WorldConnect, Volume 18, Tree 2439 (2000), Genealogy.com], Fremont, California.

Electronic File - Photograph: Photo: Wyatt Earp by Camillus S. Fly; Dodge City Peace Commissioners, Still Pictures Branch: National Archives at College Park, College Park, Maryland. Online <http://www.nara.gov/cgi-bin/starfinder/10124/standard.txt>; File 43-0540a.gif; printout 28 July 1999.

Electronic File - Document: Textual Records: Benjamin Wingo Cash Land Entry 23785; Land Entry Case Files for Missouri, Old Military and Civil Records: National Archives Building, Washington, DC. Online <http://www.nara.gov/cgi-bin/starfinder/27248/standard.txt>; File 15-2557a.gif; printout 3 March 2002.

Electronic File - Web Site: The Earp Family History, online <http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/m/c/c/Rhonda-R-Mcclure/index.html>, Rhonda R McClure, compiler <rhondam@genealogy.com>, printed out 3 March 1999.

In Conclusion

Citing sources offers you the chance to return to a source you checked and offers those who come across your published information a basis upon which to evaluate the work you have done. Citing is important. Remember, though, in the world of the Web, that you should print your source as soon as your find it online. There is always the likelihood that the site will disappear by the time you go back to it.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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