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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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The Truth About Citing Your Sources for Genealogy

Do you know you NEED to cite your sources for genealogy?

Well, now you do.

But there's a subtle truth people miss about this.

The Truth About Source Citations

The big "truth" is about the actual citations. You don't need them.

You might have read that elsewhere on this blog. I've said it a lot. There is more to this but let me finish up about the actual citations.

Formal source citations are a way to create an abbreviated statement of the source you used when publishing your work.

There are two very important pieces to that statement.

  1. Formal citations are abbreviated.
  2. Formal citations are for publication.

When you publish your work it is very important to use some form of a standard formal citation. This is just like needing to write in a language your audience can understand. You could make up a language to write in. It wouldn't matter how detailed and expressive it is if your audience doesn't understand it.

This is also why we have standard citation formats, to save space (the abbreviated part) and clearly express all the important aspects of the source (even the picky punctuation has to do with this).

People get very caught up in formal citations and that's what I see too much emphasis on.

Here's the thing, formal citations are about abbreviation, that means the "full" information should be somewhere (in your notes, that's where it should be). People too focused on properly formatted citations often miss capturing the "full" information in their zeal for proper semi-colons and other fluff.

Additionally, if you publish your work in a journal or other edited medium (as opposed to self-publishing), you will be told what format to use. Yes, we do have a pretty common format in genealogy but each publication can have its own preferred format. Because we have such a huge variety of sources in genealogy, if you try to perfect your citations before knowing where you'll publish, you will almost certainly have something you have to change.

Focusing on the formal citation is a waste of your time if you don't know where you're going to publish. (As a note, a client report is a type of publication, I absolutely do create a formatted citation as I do research for clients for this reason. I'm not saying you wouldn't focus on getting a formal citation correct, just that most genealogists don't know where they will publish or even if they will---so they're putting a lot of effort into worrying about something unnecessary. Do worry about it if appropriate, but otherwise, save your energy.).

With that said, I also want to almost tell you the opposite, but make sure you understand this... 

Learning to create formal citations is helpful. I don't suggest skipping it completely. Learning and practicing makes citing sources easier.

However, because there are such a huge variety of sources out there, being fixated on perfect, formatted, formal citations will waste a lot of your limited genealogy time. I recommend learning to formally cite a handful of the most commonly used sources really well. Don't just memorize how to do it, understand why each piece is important.

I don't need to go into detail on how to do this. Buy Evidence Explained. It is the citation guide you'll most likely need for genealogy, should you ever need one before publishing. It gives examples of tons of types of sources but most importantly shows you how the citation is created. The first few chapters explain the how and why of source citation (i.e. it goes a lot more in-depth than this post ever could).

Once you buy Evidence Explained, actually read it. Don't just use it to copy a citation, understand how it works.

The Citing Sources Puzzle

I want to recap the main points and then add a few more "pieces" to our puzzle.

  • You need to cite every source. This also includes recording every source even when you don't get information from it.
  • You do not need to be fixated on creating formal citations. You only NEED formal citations for publication.
  • You should still learn to create formal citations because it makes it easier to learn all the pieces to this citing sources puzzle. (Got it? Don't be fixated on formal citations but do understand how they work and when to use them).

Now let's add the rest of the pieces.

Do you know why we cite our sources in genealogy?

It's not because the teacher needs to grade our work.

It's not even so we can find a source again (although you do want enough detail to be able to do that).

No. You want to be able to tell something about how "good" the source is, and therefore how good the information is, simply by looking at the source information. That's why a formal citation has to be abbreviated, to let you take it in quickly as you read the information.

This is even more important in your own unpublished research notes and reports. You don't want just an abbreviated formal citation. You want all the details in your notes. Your report can use a formatted citation or you can appropriately condense the full details (if your report is just for you, you need the level of detail a formal citation provides but you don't need to worry about perfectly matching a particular style of citation).

If you want to capture "full details" in your notes, how can this possibly be easier than creating a formatted citation using a citation guide or other example?

The Final Piece of Citing Your Sources

Did you realize what the "why" for citing your sources is? It's source evaluation.

That's the post I've already written but you need to realize is also related to source citation.

You should be fixated on source evaluation (also called evidence analysis, source analysis, or evidence evaluation). If you can capture all the source information needed for source evaluation, plus any additional details you needed to get the source in the first place, you will have all the details to cite your source.

What goes wrong when people are only fixated on creating formatted citations is, some citations need additional details. You don't know this until you are writing up your information and cite the source for specific information. You may cite that same source for other information and not need the additional details or you need different additional details.

While you are researching, if you only created a basic formatted citation, you may not record that additional information. This additional citation information will always either come from the evidence itself or from the source evaluation information. An experienced researcher catches this information. Focusing on source evaluation helps you catch this information but also helps you become that experienced researcher.

I believe source evaluation is the easier option for less experienced researchers because honestly, when you are less experienced, doing your best is the best you can do.

Source evaluation isn't something you learn by rote. You can learn to cite sources by rote (how many sources you can learn to cite this way is personal but when you're less experienced, you use less variety of sources so this is reasonable).

If you are essentially creating your citations by rote, you will miss capturing important details (even if you don't have the formats memorized, if you are just copying from an example, or creating them in a way that you aren't thinking about the why, just the how, this is problematic). This can take a lot of effort, so you may feel like you're doing a great job. Your citations might look really good. The problem is later when you need to evaluate the evidence from that source and all you have is a formatted citation and you missed the additional information for the evaluation.

An experienced researcher knows to capture the evaluation information and may still create a formatted citation at the same time. There's nothing wrong with this. The point is, you need more than just a formal citation.

Our citing sources puzzle, when put together, shows us a few different things.

  • You need to cite your sources.
  • You need to capture details for source evaluation.
  • You don't have to create formatted citations for your own use.
  • You do want to capture more details than what goes in a formal citation.
  • Learning to formally cite sources can help you learn source evaluation and source citation.
  • Learning to evaluate your sources helps you learn how to cite sources.
  • If you capture your source evaluation information plus any additional information needed to get the source, you should always have enough information to create a formatted citation.

This is like a puzzle because the pieces fit together rather than being distinct. You want to learn citation to learn evaluation which helps you learn citation.

A Few More Basics

Depending on your experience with source citation, I want to mention a few more basic concepts you may not be aware of or may have forgotten.

  • You cite the source you use, not the source "it" cites. (If you looked at someone's family tree, you cite that tree, not the sources listed in the tree.)
  • Citation is more art than science.
  • The only wrong way to cite your sources is not to do it.
  • (But with that being said, how will you evaluate a source OR find it again if it's something lacking details, such as "1850 census").

Here's a key point to recognize as far as citing what you use. Remember, citing a source is not the same as taking notes. If you use a family tree as a source, take notes of what sources they used. 

Better yet, go look at those sources yourself. Then you can cite that source. It would be totally reasonable to use an online tree and never cite it because you followed up with the sources the tree cited and those sources provided all the information. 

This is not cheating in genealogy. You always want to try and look at the sources used when you can, regardless if we're talking about a tree, a family history, or any source that lists its sources.

Citing your sources is crucial in genealogy. The truth is, you don't need formal citations, though. Capture the details in your notes, more details than you need for a formal citation. But just because you don't need formal, formatted citations doesn't mean learning to cite them won't help. Source evaluation is one of the most important parts of citing sources, formally or informally. Learning to create formatted citations can help you learn what's important for source evaluation and learning to evaluate sources can help you create formal citations.

Just cite your sources.

Learn more about source evaluation in this companion post.