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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Sight My What?

Sight My What? How a Shortcut That Takes Time, Saves Time

"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 other pins) 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." Those genealogists knew they needed to cite their sources (even if they weren't perfect at doing it).

I'm not sure who's coming from Pinterest so I want to explain why GENEALOGISTS cite their sources.

Why vs. What

Why Cite Genealogy Sources

This post isn't going to directly address "what," as in "what to cite" except very briefly. Instead, I hope if you understand why genealogists need to cite their sources, you can record everything you'll need.

The Very Basics of Genealogy Source Citation

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.

The easiest way to do this is:

  1. Write down your source in your notes the moment you open the book/webpage/etc. (don't worry about formatting, just record all the information you possibly think could be needed for a citation until you learn more).
  2. When you find a piece of information, record the page number, search you used, or the collection the information comes from (this is known as the "details" for a citation, a book page number is the example you are likely familiar with).
  3. Make notes of EXACTLY what you found, even if you save a copy (photocopy or digital image). If it's possible, you can copy and paste the information from a webpage to your notes (preferred so it's searchable) or take a screenshot of the portion of the relevant image and paste it into your notes instead of re-typing the information. This avoids typos. I do this (copy text or image) into a Word or Google Doc in addition to saving a copy of the whole page (or instead of the whole page, depending on the situation).
Just saving a copy/photocopy, doesn't allow you to follow your train or thought (which should be part of your notes) and doesn't immediately attach the source like the steps I just listed. Remember, genealogy takes time. Don't rush your research, you'll just end up stuck.

Most likely you're wondering why you should even take time to cite your sources. If you came here from the Three Genealogy 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.

Do I Cite Genealogy Sources Like I Learned in School?

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.

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.

Why Do Genealogists Cite Their Sources?

So why do genealogists cite their sources?

If for no other reason than citations help them judge their own research.

Other Reasons Why Genealogists Cite Their Sources

(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 your 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. Source citations stand-in for a super-human memory.

Not IF There Will Be a Problem...When

Citations WILL Save Your Research

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 research, instead!

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

An Illustration

To try and illustrate this, I'll give a semi-generic sample 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 person 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 the source the abstractor used 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 inexperienced 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 (a third time) 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.

The cost of not citing your sources

So here are the scenarios you could be facing and how much time you will save or waste (i.e. if not citing your sources was a shortcut or not):

  1. "Waste" your time citing sources first time around. When you have a question (later) about that research:
    • Quick review of your notes (including sources) confirms your initial research was good.
    • OR quick review of your notes (including sources) indicates there may be a problem that requires NEW research.
  2. "Save" time by not citing sources the first time around. When you have a question (later) about that research:
    • Re-do the initial research in order to review it. This confirms the initial research was good.
    • Re-do the initial research in order to review it. Discover you may have to do even more research on this question.

You can see if you cite your sources initially, if you have questions, it'll take a lot less time to deal with your questions. If you don't cite your sources, it takes the same amount of time PLUS time to re-do the research.

Re-doing research 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! I can tell you from experience that trying to re-do research without citations can actually be even harder. Sometimes you can't find a source again.

It's really hard to decide what to do when you have notes without sources that raise questions.

If you can't find that source again, you really just need to start over (how's that shortcut of not citing sources working for you now?). It is hard to convince yourself to ignore those notes, though. This usually makes you waste time by either procrastinating ("surely I can find this before I move on") or second-guessing things.

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.

How to Cite Any Genealogy Source

First, a disclaimer. I carry my source "template" in my head. I first learned it from Tom Jones's Mastering Genealogical Proof (actually, I learned this in several lectures Tom gave while he was writing the book but you can't go back in time and take those but you can buy the book!). This template is not mine to share plus, I was already a professional genealogist at the time so I had a lot of citation experience. If you're new to this, you'll need more than just the simple template.

Here's what I recommend you record as you learn how to create great genealogy citations.

  • Information on how to find the source again. This should be more than just a URL. URLs change, include details so you could hunt the source up if your URL failed (look at what other details are given).
  • If a "citation" is provided, copy and paste it (I've only ever seen this online, not in physical items). I've never found one of these that includes everything you really need to record but this is fast so copy and paste it if it's provided.
  • The exact search you used, if you used a search.
  • The details that came up with the search (different collections have different searchable information. You might have entered a year but that isn't searchable for one result but turns out it includes a street address).
  • Anything you think might potentially be needed for a citation. If you can copy and paste, grab it all. It's faster than sitting there deciding what you need and what you don't (and sometimes this changes!). If you're using physical items, you can grab this info with a photo on your smart phone if that's faster (you still need to have a source attached to your notes and be able to tell the photo goes with those notes, as well).
  • Notes about the source. This is in addition to the notes of the information you were seeking. You want to know something is hard to read, there is no index, the records are chronological or alphabetical by first name (what!). If there is information about where the item came from, history of the record (especially if there is damage or missing parts), or other indications of what happened to the information/source before it got to you. Remember, genealogy sources can be a database of abstracted records (what's its source, what is included?). They can be original handwritten records (is there a note that pages are missing or water damage made pages illegible?). They can be images of a book or original records (and sometimes online images get out of order online!). These notes vary by the type of source you're using. The big points are: is it hard to read, use, or are parts missing OR what is the source of the information if it was abstracted or transcribed (and that also includes if parts of the original are missing or was the original hard to use).

For all of these items, record information as you find it, complete with errors. You do want to be able to find a source again (possibly needing to search using the wrong information) but later you might discover what you thought was a typo is actually correct, as well.

Most genealogists do not record enough information for a citation. Online research makes it so easy to quickly grab what you need (and if you're not sure, to grab too much, which is better than too little). As you get more experienced you can save time and not record things you know you won't need. But honestly, it's often faster to just get it all via copy and paste or a photo, just in case, rather than stop and think about it.

Always make sure the information you gather is attached to the source. Having an image of the page and a separate image of the citation information is dangerous. Have written notes, even if they are brief, with enough citation information to know exactly where the information came from (and to be able to identify any images of additional information). Don't assume you'll get information and citation put together later. What if you don't and then can't remember what goes together?!

Hint: I use a plan to notes to report/summary template to make sure notes and sources stay together. This can also replace your research log if you wish (I prefer having my spreadsheet research log, as well, so I can sort and filter with it). This template/process is a huge time savings and doesn't cheat any part of the research cycle.


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 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.

If you'd like more information on getting started recording your sources and how to use them to "evaluate evidence," check out my new Everyday Source Citation Guide.

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

Learn why citing your sources for your genealogy research will potentially save you years of time. #genealogy #familyhistory #genealogyshortcuts