How to cite sources: create family history research worth keeping


01 July 2022
Citing-sources-60417.jpg How to cite sources: create family history research worth keeping
Sources are invaluable for noting where you found information about your ancestors but what's the best way to record these sources in a useful way? Emma Jolly takes a look.

In this era of fake news, all of us are becoming more alert to the importance of evidence in supporting our assertions. Whether referring to contemporary political issues or historic family matters, sources give us the confidence to know where we found the information and help us to assess its accuracy.

This sounds straightforward doesn’t it, but often we don’t know how exactly to cite these sources in our family history research. And do amateur family historians need to use the same citation method as a professional genealogist?

Why use citations?

We all need clear citations to help us collect, collate and analyse all the sources we have searched – whether or not we have found (anything). Citing sources correctly helps to ensure that we do not repeat sources (or searches), it helps us avoid plagiarism, and it enables us to find the information again should we need to double-check.

Ideally, we should add source citations to any event or fact we add to our family trees – be that on paper, using GEDCOM software or an online program. Some online programs, like Ancestry Family Trees, automatically add the source when you save a record to an individual in your family tree. 

Where the source is a living person, such as an older family member, we should use oral history guidelines. The date is important here: what someone recalls the day after an event will be different from how they remember 50 years later.

Lastly, do you share research with others? If you are collaborating with close family members (or more distant cousins acquired through DNA testing), you may wish to share your research. Having the correct sources means that your relatives can follow up on your findings and take research further. Thus, accurate source citations help us with more efficient and effective family history research overall. 

Five top tips for citing sources

1. Cite sources as you go along, rather than waiting until you have a full family tree (and possibly forgotten where the information came from)

2. Link a source to each relevant event. For instance, a census entry should be linked to each household member's name, date of birth, place of birth, occupation and residence

3. Include basic details of the source. Namely: author; title; repository; publisher; date; page

4. Check whether a citation reference already exists. Many archives have citations than you can simply copy and paste.

5. When interviewing, the simplest citation is, eg: Interview with J Bloggs, 7 April 2018. Born in 1935.

About the author

Emma Jolly is a professional genealogist, writer and historical researcher, specialising in London and the British Empire.

First published April 2018. Reviewed July 2022.

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