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Sight My What?

"Cite Your Sources" (that's the answer to "Sight my what?") 

This post is a companion to the first suggestion in "Three Genealogy Shortcuts That Aren't Cheats." That particular post has become very popular (compared to my others) on Pinterest. I know why---it's a totally pin-able title. But as the number of views shot up and I reread the post, I started to worry the first suggestion was a shocker to much of my audience. I conceived of the shortcuts for the type of genealogist I used to get in my "Occasional Genealogist" class. Those were very avid hobbyists, not beginners, not casual "searchers". I'm not sure who's coming from Pinterest. So if you read the first "shortcut" (start your citations before you start to research) and thought, "sight my what?," this post is for you.

Why vs. What 

 This post isn't going to directly address "what," as in "what to cite." Instead, I hope if you understand why genealogists need to cite their sources, you can record everything you'll need. I am working on a post just about "what" but I'm not sure how I want to tackle it. I just know I don't want it to leave you with more questions. So for now, let's focus on "why."

The Very Basics 

 I could keep this super simple. Genealogists need to cite their sources. That means you record the source you used for each piece of information. That means each...individual...piece of information. You might get a month and year of birth from one source, and a day and month from another, and then a different year from another. There are entire books to help you learn to correctly combine these pieces of information to determine a correct birth date.

If you didn't know you needed to cite your sources, start with citing each source you use and know exactly what information it provided. If you do that, you can learn the more advanced skills later.

Most likely you're wondering why you should even take time to cite your sources. If you came here from the "Shortcuts" post you probably at least wonder how starting them at home could be a shortcut. Wouldn't skipping them save the most time? Sure, it'll save you some immediate time if you don't cite your sources. But down the road you are going to run into major problems. So let's make sure you understand how citing every source is worth the time.

Citation Education for Genealogy 

Sometimes (often?) genealogical source citation is taught the way we were taught source citation in school. I think this introduces problems for genealogists so let's nip that in the bud right now.

In school you probably first cited sources around third to fifth grade. You were instructed in a very basic manner, probably with extremely specific directions. Those directions told you what to record (title, publication information, page, etc.). You probably also had directions about placing punctuation and underlining (before we typed everything) or italics.

There was minimal "why" or explanation of how this relates to what you would do if you entered a research career. As you progressed in school and into college, source citation built upon what you were (or should have been) taught previously. I remember vividly having to write citations on index cards in elementary school, formatted citation on one side, notes from that book on the other. By high school, they gave us a little booklet of how to cite more types of books. But it was still really all about punctuation (and just books!).

Here's the problem with using this approach in genealogy. In school, each research project was independent. Poor citation in one had no bearing on another. In genealogy, you are building on your previous research. If you don't understand why you need to cite your sources, you will create insufficient sources (including no sources). I was so young when I started genealogy that I thought the only reason you ever cited a source was so the teacher knew you didn't cheat. No adult would "cheat" at genealogy so clearly there was no reason to cite my sources (there was nothing correct in that entire assumption, by-the-way). Even if you had an academically rigorous background that involved citing sources, it doesn't always translate to genealogy (this could be because the subject doesn't translate or you don't translate it correctly--it doesn't matter, it just happens sometimes).

If you can do genealogical research at all, you can understand what is needed for genealogical source citation and why. You may need to study, you probably need to make yourself notes, but you can do this regardless if you have a "citation background" or not.


So why do genealogists cite their sources? If for no other reason than citations help them judge their own research.

Other "whys" (are they just semantics?) 

The reason for citing sources is often explained as "so you can find the source again" or "so someone else can replicate your results." This is all related to being able to judge your research. If you aren't able to find the source again, based on your citation, you won't have sufficient information to judge your research. Just being able to find the source again is not enough, though.

Sometimes the reason why genealogists cite their sources is described as "so others can judge the quality of your work." I don't like using this as the "why" because people use the excuse, "well, it doesn't matter, this is just for me." I imagine the "me" that has questions about my own research has more advanced skills than the "me" that did the research. In other words, you are a different genealogist at that point. The most important person that needs to judge you work is your future self. Using the excuse, "this is just for me," is going to hurt you the most.

I would now like to try and impress this on you a little more:

Cite your sources so the quality of your research can be judged by yourself and others.

You will not remember exactly what you did to find a piece of information or come to a conclusion. Genealogy builds on itself and takes time. Source citations are one of the necessary parts of genealogical research that stand-in for a super-human memory.

Not IF There Will Be a Problem...When 

At some point you will have a problem. You won't be able to get further with new research. You will need to review the research you have already done. Without source citations, you won't be able to spot a problem, or hole, in that research.

In a similar situation, if you find something new that raises a question, you won't be able to tell that your research is sound without citations to each piece of information. Your research may be fine, the problem could be in what you discovered. It would be terrible to re-do your own research only to find there wasn't a problem. You could have been doing some new correct research, instead!

If the problem is in your research, your citations will allow the more experienced you to more quickly identify it. You probably don't need to re-do everything, you can focus-in on one issue.

An Illustration

To try and illustrate this, I'll give a semi-generic example situation.
Your local library has a book of abstracted records for the time and place an ancestor lived. You use that book and find your man and record the information it provides. Later (possibly years later) you have a question that takes you back to the information from that book. If you did a good job citing your source, you know what book you used, that it was an abstract, and what source the abstractor used (if this wasn't stated in the book, you would have recorded that fact).

Depending on your problem, and how easy it is to get the book of abstracts, you might decide to go look at the book again. If you did a great job with your citation, you may not feel this is necessary. If you determine (from your citation) that the book was of good quality, you will probably use the source it cited to obtain a copy of the original record. If you decide (from your citation or a second review of the book) that the book wasn't well done, you will need to do a little work to determine the book's source and how to obtain a copy of the original. It might take a little time to do all this but it is a very clear plan.

What if you didn't cite your source at all? Well, I'm not sure exactly what you'd do. I bet you wouldn't be exactly sure, either. You would have to research the entire problem. Without cited sources, you would have no idea what you had already looked at so you're pretty much starting over. You might do some new research, you might be doing the same research again. How do you know? Without source citations, there's nothing to tell you where a piece of information came from.

When this happens to you and you're a fairly experienced researcher, it's extremely annoying and time consuming. You really curse your former self that didn't cite her sources (you should hear the voice of experience writing this scenario). What's really terrifying is if this happens while you're still a fairly in-experienced researcher. It may still be annoying and it will be time consuming. It's possible you will have to re-visit this part of your research again later when your skills are more advanced. Hopefully you cite all your sources the second time around so if you have to revisit this information a third time, you are following the concrete plan I described before.

This nebulous "research it all again" can take a long time. It is no different than how long it took the first time unless you remember some of the details. If you made any mistakes the first time, this might not be a good thing! Not citing your sources can waste a large amount of your time. It's possible it could take years to solve the problem, most of that time being spent re-researching something. I don't know about you, but I never have enough free time. I really don't want to re-do anything I don't have to. Also, this often feels like going in circles which sucks all the fun out of genealogy.


Why do genealogists cite their sources? It's much more than finding the source again. A good genealogist should have questions about the work they've done. Sometimes pieces of information don't appear correct. It is the accompanying source citations (and written analysis and explanations--a topic for a different post) that illustrates (or explains) the information is correct without the need to re-research the subject.

Now that you know how amazing and helpful your own citations can be, maybe you'll give them some thought and always record them. They will rarely be perfect (without some serious editing) but understanding why genealogists cite their sources and how they can help you personally will hopefully get you started.

Return to "Three Genealogy Shortcuts That Aren't Cheats"

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