Source Citations in Genealogy: Church or Cult?

Source Citations in Genealogy: Church or Cult?

by Kerry Scott on 16 February 2011

Post image for Source Citations in Genealogy:  Church or Cult?

Hey, guess what?  I got some email about that post yesterday.  Color me shocked.

In particular, I got one from a guy who tried to post a comment (clue:  if you use a fake name and fake email address, I can’t respond to you).  The gist of it was that I’m a boob because I think source citations are unnecessary.

Let me be really clear on this:  I am a devout member of the Church of Citations.

I cite my sources.  I believe everyone else should cite their sources.  I’m tremendously frustrated when someone shares their research with me, and I can’t tell if it’s brilliant or terrible, because I can’t see where they got the information.  I agree with the people who say that one of the biggest challenges in genealogy right now is dealing with crappy research that proliferates on the internet.  I believe that even the newest newbie should carefully record where she finds every piece of information she gathers.  My biggest regret in my genealogical life is that I wrote down dumb things like “1900 census” for my sources when I started out.

Source citations are important.  I believe this.

What I don’t believe in is the Cult of Citations.  The Cult is different from the Church.  The Cult is so intense that it freaks people out.  It accepts no compromise, no continuum, no baby steps.  It will say in public that people who don’t agree are wrong wrong WRONG.  Nobody wants to join a cult, and when people see members of the Cult, they run.  They run far and fast, so that the cult can’t catch them.  The problem is that when they run, the Church can’t catch them either.  So they remain unsaved heathens who don’t cite their sources.

Now, why would that be a good thing?

And the thing is, the members of the Cult of Citations are right.  They’ve worked hard for the past 30 years to clean up the field, and they’ve done an admirable job (truly).  They’re upset that there’s still so much crap out there.  They’re upset that after all that work, the internet has allowed the pile of crap to grow exponentially.  They’re upset that people are poo-pooing the idea that nobody can appreciate your hard work on your tree if they can’t evaluate where the information came from.  They’re right when they say that we all need to cite sources in the same standard way, with the stuff in the same order, so that it’s not a big sloppy mess.  Cult members:  You’re right.  You’re right on every point.  I’m not arguing with you.

But when you are condescending, people run away.  When you express your frustration with the nonbelievers in public, people run away.  When you say, “The comma goes here, not THERE.  That was 1972,” people run away.  When you imply that every source must be in the perfect Evidence Explained format from the get-go, people run away.  And when they run away, they don’t come back.  We lose them.  And then we have crap trees with no sources, and it’s our own fault.  People who aren’t yet saved see that gleam in your eyes, and they become hypersensitive to what you say.  They know you’re trying to convert them, and they don’t like it (even though they really do need converting).  They think you’re making things hard.  They don’t understand your zeal.

Again:  It’s not that you’re not right.  You are.  It’s that it’s not working.

I was blown away by the contempt I heard from regular, average genealogists at RootsTech.  They seemed…well, disgusted.  One of them actually used the term “cult” to describe people who think source citations are important.  I wouldn’t have necessarily used that term, but perception is reality, and these are people we need to reach.  We’re not reaching them.  We’re actively turning them off.  They’re wrong and we’re right, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s not working.

I think we should start telling newbies this:

  1. Buy Evidence Explained.  Read the first two chapters.  That’s the part you really need to understand when you’re new—the principles of analysis and citation.  You don’t need to worry all that much about where the semicolon goes.  It’s okay if you’re new and you don’t care about that.  That’s normal.
  2. When you’re working on your research, gather every bit of info you can on every piece of information you find.  If you pull something out of a book, write down everything on the title page, plus the page number and all that stuff.  If you’re looking at a census film, write down exactly where you got it, what page it was on, what website you found it on and when—everything.  If you’re in doubt about whether you need a detail, write it down.  Don’t worry about the format.  Just gather the citation information.
  3. When you go to publish your stuff, pull out Evidence Explained.  It will tell you how to put the information you have in the right order for your citations.  You don’t need to worry about the format until you publish it.  You just need to HAVE the information.

See, when I talk to people about why they hate citations, I find that it’s not the gathering of the citation information they hate.  It’s the formatting.  People find that getting it in the right format is hard, and they don’t want to do it.  We need to make it abundantly clear that it’s okay to sin in your own files in terms of the formatting.  It’s okay if the page number and the publisher date are reversed, as long as you have the citation information.  The goal is to be able to find the stuff again…not to be a formatting saint.  It would be delightful if everyone’s files had perfect citations in them, but they don’t, and by implying that that’s even an appropriate goal, we’re losing people.  It’s not working.

The other thing I think we need to stop doing is talking about the mechanics of citations on all of the well-known public listservs.  Way, WAY more people read those than I ever imagined (far more that the subscriber numbers would indicate, I believe).  When they see the dialog about citations and semicolon placement, they get the idea that that’s all the glitterati cares about.  They see people rigorously debating how a citation would appear, and even when the people involved know each other and are fine with the tenor of the dialog, to an outsider, it can appear contentious.   I know that that’s not always true, but the perception is definitely out there.  Beginning and intermediate genealogists see those discussions, and they’re intimidated.  They turn away.  It’s not working. If I were crowned queen, I’d create a list just for source citation questions.  That way, the semicolon placement specialists could parse their brains out, and we could all benefit from their wisdom…without having a disproportionate emphasis on the mechanics of source citations on the professional lists.  People who truly need help could get it, and we could make sure that we aren’t overwhelming people who aren’t yet members of the Church (and in fact, I think most real churches keep their doctrine discussions fairly private for that very reason).

Maybe my anonymous email pal is right, and I’m a boob.  But there are lots of boobs out there, and if you want to be able to reach them…well, you’d better learn to speak boob.

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{ 76 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy Crow February 16, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Sing it, sister! :-)


Randy Seaver February 16, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I agree 100% with you – I’m in the Church also. I’m not fanatical about it. I do want my work recognized as quality, and so I’m making the effort to make my osurce citations as good as I can. Only 280,000 facts to go!

Using the EE models in the current software really helps. You fill in the blanks and have a citation. You do it once, and it’s good. Or you create EE-style citations in a word processor and cut-and-paste into the Free-form template in the programs. I showed RootsMagic’s source templates to my Beginning Genealogy students on Monday and they said “wow, that looks easy to use).” You don’t even have to buy EE!

Where do you find the folks that say sources don’t matter, or are the Citation Police? I guess I don’t want to go there…

Cheers — Randy


Cynthia Shenette February 16, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Amen sister! I’m a believer!


Greta Koehl February 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Yeah, I belong to that Church. When I am trying to lure people into genealogy, I tell them that genealogy is FOR THEM – for their learning and enjoyment – and they should never forget that, and they should do genealogy the way that is enjoyable for them. But I also tell them that there are only two things that they need to start doing from day one, because the deeper they get into research the more they will be wishing that they had started doing these two things from the beginning, and that is interview relatives, especially older ones, and keep some kind of track of their sources. This is because when genealogy gets really exciting and the information starts pouring in, they will want to go back and check something, and they won’t remember where to find it anymore – that paper trail is FOR THEM and not for other people, at least not yet. I conclude by saying that the reason everyone is always nattering at them to write down their sources is because everyone has made the mistake of not doing this and has never stopped regretting it (which may be an exaggeration, but not much). Only later, when they are good and hooked, do I mention evidence, proof, analysis, and citation – NO mention of form, just how all of these things are related. Mostly evangelism, but perhaps a little bit of apologetics, too.


Kerry Scott February 17, 2011 at 9:56 am

I agree. We need to emphasize the fact that you’re doing YOURSELF a favor by citing sources. When we talk about how sourcing affects others (by making you look more credible, helping people verify your work, etc.) they tune out. They don’t care if you think they’re smart or your work is good. They should, but the fact is they don’t. That comes later, when they’re at the intermediate or advanced level.


Valereie February 16, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Add my amen. Looking forward to a kinder, gentler gen world – one where we make room for the newbie who is excited by their new discovery of their family tree. A world where we don’t kill their enthusiasm by beating them with the citation stick. We teach by example, with gentle persuasion and patience – remembering we were once beginners too. Keep calm and site your sources and allow others the opportunity to progress. When we know better – we do better


Yvonne February 16, 2011 at 10:16 pm

From a frustrated beginner standpoint, it’s one thing to have everything in boxes with notes jotted all over, and an entirely different thing to translate this ‘stuff’ to an online resource for everyone to enjoy and know it’s credible. If everything we used had this little “cite this source” link or notation like Wikisource does, I’d be a happy camper.


Kerry Scott February 17, 2011 at 9:58 am

YES! I am hoping that technology advances to the point where this doesn’t have to be akin to pulling teeth. Hopefully five years from now we don’t have to argue about this stuff, because it’s so easy to have a standardized source citation (at least from the stuff you pull online) that even newbies do it automatically.


Kimberly Powell February 17, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Well said, Kerry! That’s exactly why I hope FamilySearch can get their new incarnation of Family Tree right this time. Online documents are just asking for sources to be automatically attached – so that they always travel with them from one program or website to the next. There still has to be some human intervention, to attach the citation to the correct statement of fact, but FamilySearch has a big opportunity here to make it easy for people to cite their sources. Most people in the citations panel at RootsTech understood the necessity of source citations – they just want it to take less time.


geniaus February 16, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Alleuia, Sister
Members of the cult may think I’m a heretic but I’m a member of the church just like you.


Sheri Fenley February 17, 2011 at 7:26 am

Well said Sista Mouthastasia, well said! I think they will come back into the fold. I will give you a stack of “Get out of Citation Hell Free” cards to give to all the little lambs.



Kerry Scott February 17, 2011 at 10:01 am

I’m sure my email pall will be delighted to receive one of those cards.


Lynn Palermo February 17, 2011 at 8:05 am



Tessa February 17, 2011 at 10:04 am

The amazing thing to me if that if you have the chance to hear Elizabeth Shown Mills speak, her first comments are to get the information down but don’t be a slave to it. Her books and laminated “cheat sheets” are references for us to use to help us – there should be consistency in this field and in Evidence Explained she simply gathered examples of every type of source you could think of!

Some folks will obsess over anything – but that is certainly not the sense I get from two of the greats in this field – Elizabeth Shown Mills and Tom Jones. In fact when you hear them speak they are the most friendly, inclusive speakers you could hope to learn from.

Additionally, the act of citation has become much easier with the advent of the Internet. There are several excellent online methods of figuring out how to draft source citations –’s cite it function is just one and quite simple to use. Google it and you will find some great examples. At least a few of the genealogy database programs (Legacy Family Tree and Roots) have source writer functions. I think your comment to get the general overview of Evidence Explained is a great idea.

All of genealogy is done in small bites. Llike anything else worth doing right/well, there are rules – learn them, understand when and how they apply, and work with them – but don’t get bogged down with form over substance. Oftentimes we make things harder than they need to be (and the result is it is less fun).

This same thing happened with WDYTYA – we should be embracing the thrill of the hunt, the history and geography lessons, etc., that can apply to all of us. Instead on some sites, we read about white gloves, celebrities not doing their own work, and it being too easy. Come on, let’s tempt people with good stories, get them off to a good and fun start and then bring them into the fold with additional methods of research and/or going for the harder research tasks. Schools should be jumping on this WDYTYA format for history, geography and writing classes AND genealogists should be volunteering to help out in the classroom for this type of project. The children would love the tech aspects and everyone likes to find out something about themselves and their family members.


Kerry Scott February 17, 2011 at 10:12 am

I’ve seen ESM make that point on the lists, too. Over and over. She does a great job of telling people how to do it right without ever being cult-y.


Dianne A February 17, 2011 at 10:50 am

Amen Sister Amen!
Words to live by — “…gather every bit of info you can on piece of information you find. If you’re in doubt……..write it down”.
You can format it later — but only if you have it!!


Donna February 17, 2011 at 11:50 am

Amen, Sista!


Rich Walton February 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm

I just know that I’m going to be lynched for this, but I do all my research and record keeping on the internet on

All of the document citations are created automatically….

What am I not understanding about this topic? Clearly, I’ve missed something important, and I’m feeling somewhat anxious about that.
(I should be typing this in green ink, huh?)


Kerry Scott February 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm

I don’t have a huge amount of experience with the Ancestry tree feature (I’ve only been using it for a month or so). As I understand it, it does its own citations for its own documents…so if I find someone in the 1900 census, for example, it’ll track that for me, because that census is on Ancestry.

But when I order a death certificate via mail (or some other means that doesn’t involve Ancestry at all), then I have to create a citation that isn’t automatic. I don’t use the Ancestry trees for anything heavy-duty, so I don’t know if that’s doable with their setup…but the further along you move in your research, the more you’ll use sources that aren’t on Ancestry (or online at all). Those sources need to be tracked too (in fact, they need to be tracked even more, because those items are harder for subsequent researchers to find than those easy ones you can find on Ancestry).


Rich Walton March 10, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Gotcha, I was only thinkig thirty seconds into the future…a very bad habit of mine! I’m going to have to go back and re-read some entries.


Yvonne February 17, 2011 at 2:37 pm

I’m sorry, Rich, lol. I just had to lol, because so many times I read a post and am completely, totally lost. Sorry, Kerry, for sidetracking the chat.


Kerry Scott February 19, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Not at all…ask if you’re lost! The whole point of blogs is the comments/conversation, not the post. The post is just the invitation to have the conversation.


Harold February 18, 2011 at 10:52 am

I’m a church member too. I would be grateful if anyone can point me to an example of this widespread, powerful cult in action. I have never encountered a member. No post or comment that I have found on this subject mentions even one or links to any example the archive of any listserv. So far it’s all something that a friend of a friend complains about. No extra research should be needed to provide an example — if it’s big enough to cause such a big effect, then you’ll run into an example soon enough. And I would appreciate the education.

So I suspect the cult may be a convenient urban legend, and that some people’s disdain for citations may have other roots that are harder to get at. Whatever they are, we should try to get at them. And if it is actually being caused by something we church members are doing, then we should change it. But let’s get a good diagnosis before we start prescribing treatments.


Kerry Scott February 19, 2011 at 1:07 pm

I don’t have an example, partly because I didn’t plan ahead to write this post (and therefore didn’t gather examples ahead of time), and partly because even I would have trouble summoning the nerve to link to an individual post and say, “This person sounds like a cult member right here.” Especially when I don’t think anyone’s ever been overly-schoolmarmish on purpose.

When I sit and try to think of examples, though, the ones that pop into my head aren’t of people being schoolmarmish at all. What actually comes to mind is the types of posts that involve a lot of hand-wringing on the part of researchers who are concerned that they aren’t doing things perfectly, and are looking for reassurance. There’s nothing wrong with feeling that way (I feel that way all the time), and I think it’s natural for conscientious people to be nervous about whether they’re “doing it right.” But casual readers see that and say, “Whoa, I was supposed to worry about THAT?” In fact, you see that a little further up on this comment thread.

That’s why I think having a list for just source citations would be helpful. People who need help could get it without feeling self-conscious. People who feel overwhelmed by seeing people spending so much time thinking about citations likely wouldn’t be subscribed to such a list, and we wouldn’t scare them off before they’re ready for that level of work. Right now we have freshmen mixing with people doing grad-level work, and there’s a reason those groups are separated in school.

I don’t know all of the causes of this perception though. I just know that there is one. If you listen to Curt Witcher’s talk from RootsTech (is that online yet?), one of the lines that generated an audible buzz was the one where he said we needed to stop “beating people over the head” about citations. Unless I’m remembering it very wrong, that’s the phrase he actually used. Days after the talk, people were still talking about that line, and how surprising it was to hear it from him (in fact, I think that’s the reason I heard so many conversations about citations during the conference; I didn’t hear a single one before Witcher’s talk).

It doesn’t matter whether the perception is true or not. It just matters if it exists. I think enough people feel this way that it’s affecting our ability to reach people who need to be reached. Those people could all be wrong; maybe they’re just seeing ESM’s face in their morning toast and freaking out or something. I don’t know. I just want to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to make sure people understand that source citations are important, and that they aren’t really that hard. I think we’re good at the first one, but we need some work on the second.


Elizabeth Shown Mills February 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Kerry, thanks for the new round of chuckles. You also reminded me of my favorite Amazon “review” (for E!–not EE). According to a “recent college graduate in history,” my use of the semi-colon instead of the comma amid complex citations is the “type of practice that still bars historians from accepting genealogists.” End quote. (No. I didn’t don a hair shirt and flagellate myself with a knotted whip. I just reread NARA’s GIL 17 and decided I’d keep on sitting in the pew with that flock of historians who do like semicolons amid complex citations.)

As for those “dumb citations” from our early days, I still have a photocopied page from my first year in genealogy. Being a first-year history student at the time, I’d never actually written a history paper; but I’d heard the injunction about citing sources. So I did. There in the bottom margin of the photocopy, I recorded: “From the book we gave Little Mama for Christmas.”

Verily, we have all sinned and fallen short of the grace and glory of Kate Turabian and Richard Lackey!


Kerry Scott February 19, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Well, I sure wouldn’t have commented about seeing your face in my morning toast if I’d noticed that the very next comment was from you. Sheesh.

You’re nicer than I am. I would have gotten up from my pew and told that kid to go ahead and bite me. That’s probably why no one is likely to see my face in a piece of toast.


Elizabeth Shown Mills February 21, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Kerry, if you ever see my face in your toast, just look upon it as an opportunity to have fun with your jelly and jam. :)


Rachel February 18, 2011 at 4:46 pm

As a newbie and a basic genealogist I could not care less about citations. Here’s why:

1.Time – I have limited time to devote to genealogy research. When I’m doing it I want to be focused on actual fact gathering rather than spending time on citations.
2. Audience – I never want to be published. I do what I can as quick as I can because my audience is in their 80s. I want to give them as much as information as I can before they die.
3. Lack of Collaboration – I’ve met plenty of very distance relatives through this process. They all love the information I can give them but they don’t have anything to bring to the table themselves so there’s no one questioning my work.
4. The Future – I say to any relatives in the future that complain about my lack of citation: I only had the internet to use, you have XYZ that hasn’t been invented in my time. Your work is much easier than mine.


Kerry Scott February 19, 2011 at 1:34 pm

I do my genealogy work almost entirely while small people yell stuff like, “MOM! I POOPED!” at me. I’m typing these comments in between eleventy billion interruptions to help my kid figure out how to buy food for her sparkly seahorse pet on Webkinz. To say my time is limited would be a gross understatement.

That said, my time would be a lot less limited if I had documented where I found stuff at the time I found it. Nearly all of the work I do now is really re-work, because I’m trying to figure out what the hell I was thinking when I did the first round of research. I don’t wish I’d spent time on figuring out the semicolon placement, but I sure do wish I’d written down more than “1900 census” or “trip to Minnesota” or stupid stuff like that.

If I’d even written down “1900 Census for Hennepin County Minnesota, ED 124, page 4B” or whatever, my life would be infinitely easier. Then I’d have more time to devote to…uh, the care and feeding of the sparkly seahorse. Or something.

It really doesn’t have to add much time to your work…and man, you’ll be amazed at how glad you are that you did it later, when you run into that one cousin who says, “Where the hell did you get THAT? “


Yvonne February 19, 2011 at 1:45 pm

You peeked at my notes with 1900 census citations, didn’t you?


Kerry Scott February 19, 2011 at 1:46 pm

No, but I’ll bet every one of us has some of those. I have a whole file cabinet full of ‘em.


Kimberly Powell February 19, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I count myself lucky on some of my earliest citations if I included more than just “1900 census.” I think I may even have some that just say “census.” Shhhh, don’t tell! I know I have some that just say “Grandmother” – luckily I’m still alive and still have my letters and notes so that I can be a little bit more precise about which Grandmother, when she shared the stories, and what she said!

What Elizabeth said about the source citations being for ourselves is so true. No matter how much we think we know about genealogy research now – and how thorough we think we are in our research – there will probably come a time in the future when we want to revisit our own work (and sources) in response to a new piece of information or because we just have learned some little detail we initially overlooked in the excitement of the find is REALLY important. Having those sources to follow our own research is the biggest gift we can give ourselves.

Can you tell I’m wading through boxes of 20-year-old research (and wishing I had kept better research notes and source citations)? Taking classes with Elizabeth and Tom has me convinced the answers I’ve long been looking for are probably already in there somewhere ;-)

Elizabeth Shown Mills February 19, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Rachel, I wish that, as a “newbie,” I had been as skilled as you in articulating my circumstances and reasoning. I also wish that I’d had ClueWagon, back then, to clue me in to what I never anticipated.

I, too, had preciously little time as a newbie—being a student (and student-wife) with a day job and babies in day-care who needed a full-time mommy once we all got home. In my excitement over “finding our family” and sharing those finds, I ***wasted*** my time and our money. I misled others. I even wasted my in-laws’ funds when they caught my enthusiasm and hired a so-called professional I met who swore he had their family trees already done—a professional who not only made up his sources but also his “facts.”

You see, history is not just a collection of “facts” we gather like dead leaves to hang back onto the family tree. What we think of as “facts” are only assertions someone made about something. Some people spoke the truth, as best they knew it. Some blatantly lied. Others were confused. And most of what we find becomes confusing, once we gather enough that the contradictions become obvious.

As genealogists, we deal not just in “facts” but also identities and kinships; and those are not “facts” in any shape, form, or fashion. They are judgment calls. Or guesswork. Some are made by individuals who carefully appraise their sources and analyze their evidence to reach reliable conclusions. Far, far, more are made by the naïve who assume that if the name is the same it must be their person.

You are a wonderfully unique person, Rachel. Every person is. Your identity is created by all your associations and experiences. You are, let’s say, a software engineer. You are married to Brian—a wonderful, thoughtful, husband. You have two children you love dearly: Rod and Caitlin. &c &c &c. What if, a century from now, someone assembles their version of the You Family and they assert that Rachel You worked for a carnival as a ferris-wheel operator, was the the mother of 7 kids, the last three by a boyfriend named Buster, who busted her head open one day with a tire iron—after which Social Services took her kids and farmed them out separately to a string of foster homes? I suspect you would not just turn over in your grave; you would bolt upright, bang on the coffin lid, and scream, “Let me out of here so I can straighten out this mess!”

Our ancestors were real people whose lives beg to be reassembled into the real individuals they were. Our ancestors also had a saying: “When you drink from the water, consider the source.” To recreate them as real people, we can’t just “drink from the water.” We do have to consider our sources. Sometimes the source is a pure artesian spring. More often it’s a pond downstream from an outhouse.

All this is why there is so much hoop-la over sources. It’s not just (as we were taught in 8th grade), we cite our sources so others know where we got our stuff. To heck with the idea of doing all that for “others.” Let’s be totally selfish here! We spend the time it takes to identify and analyze our sources so we can find the real people who actually were our ancestors. Not just names and interesting stories about other same-name people, but the actual men and women whose genes we carry, whose talents and impulses we inherited and act upon today.

As Rosie O’Donnell discovered last night on WDYTYA, it was their lives and their experiences that created who we are today. We search for them, so we can understand ourselves. If we “collect” the wrong people, what have we learned?


Regina February 19, 2011 at 3:06 pm

WOW! That is the best thing I’ve ever heard about why we look for our ancestors and why we (should) cite our sources!


Rachel February 23, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Thanks for the reply Elizabeth. You made some good points. In my little time researching I’ve found that half that information I received from family documents (past research or memories) was incorrect. Perhaps I will start with small citations…


Elizabeth Shown Mills February 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Rachel, you’ve already made the most important start. You’ve recognized the connection between (a) identifying sources and (b) figuring out what is reliable amid all the material others gift us with.

Given Kerry’s church vs. cult theme, I’ll yield to temptation and post here my own Ten Commandments from my conference lecture “Sources and Citations Simplified.” (I’m tired of giving it anyway, so I might as well put it online; then conference planners may ask for a different topic. :) To ‘start small,’ you can start with nos. 1-4. Then you can build up to no. 10 .

1. Thou shalt cite something.
2. Thou shalt not beat thy breast over past lapses. All have sinned and fallen short of the grace and glory of Richard Lackey!
3. Thou shalt not be paranoid. Any citation is better than none at all.
4. Thou shalt not get bent out of shape over punctuation marks. A comma here or a semicolon there matters little in the grand scheme of things.
5. Thou shalt not expect formulas to fit every record around. Citation is an art, not a science.
6. Thou shalt cite only what thou useth. If it be a derivative, thou shalt not cite the original thou hast not studied.
7. Thou shalt give credit where credit is due. The cousin who sends material compiled by Sam Smart deserves thanks for her help, but Sam is still the compiler—and published works call for credit to author and publisher, not a library’s call number.
8. Thou shalt thoughtfully consider the nature of thy source. Otherwise, thou wilt go away without details thou wilt later need.
9. Thou shalt thoughtfully consider what details others needeth—especially to understand thy source. Your eyes and mind hath great value here.
10. Thou shalt always add an appraisal of thy source— strengths and warts—while thou art eyeballing it!


Betty-Lu June 7, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Years ago (possible 100 years) a book of will abstracts for Philadelphia was published. So many of the early researchers on the Coulton line used that abstract as the will. Well you probably guessed, something did not make sense. It listed a granddaughter that age did not fit. I went to the actual will and found out that there was no indication that this girl was a granddaughter in fact the will actually indicated she was a daughter. Just about everytime I find a post on this family they post the wrong information about this girl. Side note, If this girl was a granddaughter then the only son would be the oldest, with her being a daughter the son’s place in the family appears to be the youngest according to other records. A difference of about 25 years!
So I completely agree with commandment #6. I have become very frustrated with this family.


footnoteMaven February 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm

I am certain that people who see my name will think I am a member of the Cult instead of having been married in the Church. I do everything possible to make my life easier with regard to citations. I’d much rather be making new discoveries than painful proper citations.

My philosophy:

If the women don’t find you handsome… they should at least find you handy
- Red Green -

That is my philosophy with regard to citations. While they may not be handsome (technically correct), your citation should be handy (sufficient information to find the source). You may have missed a comma, capitalized something that shouldn’t be, or have things out of place, but we should be able to find that source.

I do believe that from day ONE, anyone researching their family history should gather all the information necessary to find that source again. It will save you from severe frustration years down the road. And there are many ways to do this.


P.S. I bet I can guess who called you a boob!


Becky Smith February 21, 2011 at 10:17 am

I try to cite my sources and most of the time I get it done. However I will never share what I’m doing because no matter what you do there will be people who complains about your sources. They want to be able to copy your work and they want it to be 100 percent perfect, and unfortunately I’m far from perfect. I appreciate what I find and I don’t mind looking for the source material because at least I have a place to start.


Kerry Scott February 21, 2011 at 11:26 am

Oof. Don’t not share because of that. Someone’s always going to dislike something about you no matter what you do, and that’s true in all parts of life (not just genealogy). But there’s nothing more fun than sharing your work, especially when you find people who are more closely related to the ones you’re working on.

I do a lot of collateral lines, friends, neighbors, in-laws of in-laws of in-laws, etc. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to be able to find their descendants and say, “Hey, here’s some stuff for you.” It’s well worth the risk of occasionally running into a crankypants (which actually happens fairly infrequently, in my experience).


Yvonne February 21, 2011 at 11:00 am

Kerry, what are your thoughts on the automatic citation programs like EasyBib?


Kerry Scott February 21, 2011 at 11:45 am

I haven’t heard of EasyBib. I just googled and it looks interesting. Have you (or anyone else) used it?

My feeling is that anything that gets people away from not using citations at all is good. For people who are already doing them diligently and correctly…well, great. That’s always the best choice. My concern is with the people who aren’t doing them at all, and who say things like, “That’s just for professionals/people who are going to publish/persnickety people/whatever.”

Sources are for everyone, and something is better than nothing. I would rather see a large group of people doing imperfect citations than a small group of people doing pristine ones (and another, bigger group doing nothing at all).


Yvonne February 21, 2011 at 11:51 am

I’ve tried it with a few website citations. Sometimes it automatically generates the citation; sometimes it doesn’t and tells me that URL cannot be found.

When I try to add the citations to my Roots Magic, it’s still a nightmare, so I just copy and paste in the NOTE section.


Elizabeth Shown Mills February 21, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Yvonne, software of that type (e.g., Zotero, Cite It, End Note, The Write Direction, etc.) has been around since the days of 8″ floppy disks. Most offer users choices between traditional academic styles (MLA, Chicago, APA, etc.), as well as variations favored by major academic journals. They are great for all writers who wants to avoid getting wrist-slapped by persnickety editors who can’t agree among themselves over placement of a comma instead of a semi-colon, &c &c &c.

But, of course, every blessing has its bane. (Or, to invoke the old cliche, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.) For genealogists, there are two major issues to consider:

(1) These programs are designed to work with published material—simple books and articles—not the myriad of unpublished record types used daily by genealogists.

(2) Their citations to Internet or Web publications generally focus on identifying the URL, with a bare-minimum ID of the website. The genealogical concept of identifying the specific material at the website— along with the nature or origin of that material, when it was created, and whether the creator was Susie Smart or Obediah Offhisrocker—is not something that programmers and publishers are particularly concerned about. At least outside of genealogy.

(In defense of publishers, whom we could not live without: they’re just providing ‘facts’ and ‘opinions.’ From their perspective, it’s up to readers to wrestle with the info or just drink the KoolAid. From our perspective, it’s our ancestors we’re trying to identify—ear by arm by shoulderbone. To avoid creating nonexistent mutants instead of real people, we need every detail that can be wrung out of every record we find.)

One of the difficulties you report—the program’s failure to generate a citation at all—is often due to limitation 2, above. The website’s ID or structure is too complicated for the automated program to deal with.

As for difficulty in importing the EasyBib cites into RootsMagic, are you trying to import them into specific RootsMagic templates or into a free-form screen?


Yvonne February 21, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Thank you, Elizabeth!

It sounds as if these software programs might be a good foundation and lead to an ‘opportunity’ for someone skilled at writing software for genealogists.

@ RootsMagic. I’m using the templates, but I just checked the free form, and it appears much simpler. I’ll try using it. Thanks!

PS…If Kerry sees your face in her toast, I’m going to start having my breakfast at HER house :)

Linda Gartz February 21, 2011 at 11:01 am

Wow! Lots of opinions across the spectrum. I just ordered Evidence Explained–another post that came at just the right time. I have a tiny family. No first or second cousins; no living female relatives (except distant cousins in Germany and Romania) no biological children among ALL my siblings (though I’ll add that one adopted person I know (speaking of “genes” mentioned above) isn’t the least concerned that her adopted family doesn’t represent her “genes” It’s her real and only family to her and she’s just as interested in preserving its history. Bottom line, I need an efficient, easy way to site my sources (most of which I own (letters, diaries, photos, documents, etc) –e.g., Box 14, diary, December 24, 1910: my grandfather writes where he caught the train to head to America and his terrifying ride on the top to escape border patrol. My grandmother’s postcard of Kaiser Wilhelm II and her note: “This is the ship that brought me to America…” dated, place. etc. I even have the menu. This is the nature of the citations I need to make. A letter from Romania explains the death of my grandmother’s sister in 1939 from breast cancer. How do I record that? All my stuff comprises hundreds/thousands of other details from 1910 through the 1970s and other information I’m gleaning from distant relatives in Romania today via email. So primary sources mostly. I hope Evidence Explained will help me keep track of all this and allow me FIND a date and fact quickly and efficiently (as I write my family history) as well as build an updated family tree (a previous post you helped with with, Kerry!) I want this info for myself — and for any organization I can eventually donate a lot of this stuff too — as a documented history of the 20th century.


Kerry Scott February 21, 2011 at 11:30 am

That book is going to help you with every one of those. Just make sure you read the first couple of chapters, because everyone skips those so they can just hurry up and look up the answers…but the first couple of chapters are where you actually learn enough not to be scared of source citations in the first place. Once you master the concept behind all of this, you can go forth all zenlike and calm, and you won’t freak out even with really challenging ones. It’s like yoga for your genealogy brain.

I have a tiny family too. I never expected to share my stuff. The further along I get, though, the more I find people who are very, very distantly related…but it’s fun (even more fun, actually) to share with them too. You never know when someone is going to find your blog and say, “Hey! I’m your seventh cousin twice removed!” Voila—someone to share with.


Linda Gartz February 21, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Thanks, Kerry. The book should be arriving next week some time. I can’t wait!


Kellie February 21, 2011 at 1:07 pm



Mark Tucker February 22, 2011 at 10:05 am

It is good to not feel alone. There are people that care about citations and think that genealogists/family historians of all skill levels would benefit themselves and others by using them. It needs to get to the point were citing online sources is as easy as find, click, smile. What can be done to encourage sites such as Ancestry, FamilySearch, and others to make it that easy?


Kerry Scott February 22, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Mark—I’ve seen some of your suggestions elsewhere regarding the issue, and they are intriguing. I gather you have developed some sort of software solution to create standardized citations for online databases…is that right?


Mark Tucker February 22, 2011 at 6:20 pm

I prototyped the major concepts involved to prove that one-click citation for online sources is possible with today’s technology. One piece that is missing is a common data format to represent the citations (the “secret language” that Tessa talks about). I agree that not all sources are online and some of the more valuable may never be. But if we can solve the problem of easy, no brainer citation of online sources we have accomplished a few things:

1. Common file format implemented by online database providers and the major genealogy software makers.
2. Good, accurrate citations for sources that beginners to experts use
3. Beginners start doing citations from day 1 and learn about their importance
4. Paved the way for handling “offline” sources in a consistent fashion


Kerry Scott February 22, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Well, I like all four of those points a lot (particularly the third one).

What are the barriers to getting this implemented? How difficult is this for, say, Ancestry or FamilySearch to do? I gather the technology already exists, but do they have access to it? Do they buy it from you, or someone else, or is it an open source sort of thing that they can easily do themselves? Have you already brought this to the major players, and if so, what was the response?

In other words, what *specifically* is keeping this from happening?


Michael Hait March 3, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Mark -

I watched with fascination your presentation on online source citation when you first premiered it a few years ago. I do think that this is a great idea *in principle*. Creating a meta-format for citations that is inherently linked to online records is a great means to be sure that even beginners will have citations attached to their sources, like it or not.

The one major drawback to your plan, however, is that these same beginners have *not* learned to cite their sources. Even though new records are brought online every day, there is a limit.

Microfilming of records began decades ago, and has reached into the corners of many records. Yet approximately 80% of the research projects I conduct have involved a key piece of evidence that has never been microfilmed or indexed in any published form. Not even all of the records that have already been microfilmed are even close to being digitized, and they are first in line for the process, in most cases.

These non-digital sources *must* be used and *must* be cited. There is no shortcut that will allow beginners to get around learning this lesson.

And quite honestly, while I would appreciate a time-saving citation method of the nature you have described, in my opinion, its existence will likely do nothing to teach beginners about the importance of citing sources. For those records that do not have the citations automatically embedded, many beginners (regardless of how many years of experience they claim to have) will still not create consistent citations.

That would require extra work.


Harold Henderson February 22, 2011 at 10:54 am

I would think the approaches would be different to commercial sites than to FamilySearch or NEHGS. Ancestry is a publicly traded company, subject to what its investors think its customers want, thus only interested in education to a limited extent. (Certainly many of their current ads subtract from the total of genealogical awareness.) Noncommercial organizations may be somewhat more susceptible to the arguments for professionalism. But the strongest push for both would be for them to have members/customers clamoring for easier availability of quality citations — to more than just on-line sources, which are difficult but only a tiny fraction of the genealogical universe.


Kerry Scott February 22, 2011 at 3:21 pm

That is, indeed, part of the problem—not all sources are online. I’d love to see easy sourcing of online stuff, but that won’t really solve the problem, because once you get deeper into research, you start getting out from behind the computer and touching paper and microfilm and other types of sources.

One of my best pieces of info came from an engraving on a silver spoon, and there’s no button to click on a spoon.


Tessa February 22, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Wonderful conversation – I think the vast majority of us “get it” that it will help you down the road to know what your sources were, you won’t be redoing research and you will have some pride in your work product. I really think this does matter to the extent that a job worth doing is worth doing well – whether you keep it to yourself, share it only with family members, publish online and/or publish a book, Spending a bit of time learning the methodology of citations is helpful not only in genealogy but in all forms of research and writing, That said, most programs today provide great assistance (Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic to name two) and Evidence Explained and/or Elizabeth Shown Mills’ laminated “cheat sheets” are very helpful.

One area that I would like to see the tech folks head in comes as a result of Randy Seaver’s saga of the source citations – it would be nice if all the programs could agree on the “secret language” of computerize so that citations drafted in one program would not go all wiggy in another program.

I know from personal experience that the user groups are quite helpful with working through source citations. A few of us on Legacy’s User Group worked through citations with various Swedish sources, talked through ESM examples, read some online articles by Swedish and American researchers and then and noodled around and came up with something – it actually was an interesting, educational and quite useful exercise – and it sure made by subsequent citations for Swedish research consistent, clear and useful for both me and my Swedish relatives. Let’s have lots more collaboration!


Kevin February 22, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Just came across your site and already i love your posts. I love your view on sources. Citations can be very confusing to newbies. I think one of the biggest reasons for citing is for your own personal benefit. When i first started I didn’t cite sources very well and I had a ton of info but didn’t know where it came from. So when i went to go back and do some further research i had to spend a lot of time re-finding the records. Now that I cite everything, I know where i got it and what sources I’ve checked and that helps me to check new records instead of unknowingly re-checking records I’ve already gotten.


Linda Gartz February 23, 2011 at 8:26 am

Kevin hit the nail on the head. We don’t want to be re-checking, redoing work we’ve already done. We do want to know how we know something. I started out with a couple of excel spreadsheet my brother created when we first organized our masses of inherited letter, diaries, artifacts etc. One is by Box # (25 bankers’ boxes total) with contents; the other is by date, so we can a) find where something is and b) check dates. I’m starting to add to the date spreadsheet as I discover new details every time I go into a box, each of which may have hundreds of artifacts! I’ve also ordered the book Kerry suggested (Evidence Explained) way back in this thread.


Ken Spangler February 24, 2011 at 1:03 am

Thanks Kerry!
This is an awesome subject. I have to admit that in the beginning I failed miserably. I would gather sources and put them on notes and such but I rarely put them into my genealogy database software.
Now, 11 years later, I find myself trying to redo everything and I wish I would have had someone to tell me in the beginning how important it was.
That being said, I try to put my sources in such a way that they will be found again but I refuse to worry about how I punctuate something! I’m not publishing anything, I’m just trying to make sure my descendants can find this! It is a hobby after all! :-)
Have a wonderful day!


Whitney February 24, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Amazing post & conversation!! I’ll admit I’m in a weird transition in my source citations, probably verging on cult because I know no better. Coming off of being an avocational genealogist and trying my damnedest to venture into the vocational genealogist’s realm, citations are the one thing that make me want to either cry or curl up into a ball and wish that I’d never so much as learned what a third cousin three times removed is, let alone how to obtain obscure probate information from counties that are no longer in existence.

However, the discussion that I’ve read forthwith has helped put the whole thing in perspective to me. There is light at the end of the tunnel!!! Amazing. Thanks again for starting such a lively discussion.


Nancy February 24, 2011 at 1:33 pm

This has been a really great, discussion, Kerry. Thanks for starting it.
Like so many others, I had to backtrack to get accurate information for many of my earliest genealogy finds. Thankfully someone explained the importance of including the E.D. and S.D. (before the internet) when finding family in census records, so at least I had those. These days I’m really careful about writing down where I find documents, etc.
I’m wondering if this dicussion includes citing our sources when we post to our blogs. I don’t see many genealogy bloggers including source citations in their posts. I usually don’t but have occasionally. Is there the expectation of that in the gen. blogging community, do you think?


Yvonne February 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm

OK, dumb question…what is E.D. and S.D. I could probably Google it, but I’ll ask here instead. I am so hit and miss with citations on my blog, and even when I do them, I know they’re not in the correct form. I’m just thankful Elizabeth and Kerry, our professionals, believe some sort of citation is better than none. I’m repenting as I type.


Kerry Scott February 24, 2011 at 1:45 pm

See, that there is a not-dumb question. I am sure other people were wondering the very same thing.

“E.D.” stands for Enumeration District. “S.D.” stands for Supervisor’s District. You’ll find them at the top of the form for each page of the census. They help you find the same family again in the census if/when you need to.


Kerry Scott February 24, 2011 at 1:51 pm

It depends on what you mean by “expectation.” Some people do expect that. Others don’t.

My own personal policy is this: My blog is mostly for entertainment (like a TV show). I don’t cite every single thing I say, for the same reason there isn’t a big source citation on your screen after each sentence during “Who Do You Think You Are?” It just bogs it down.

I don’t talk that much about my personal research here, either, so this is less of an issue for me. When I talk about a document or a family, though, I do generally say where I got the info. For example, I did a post recently where I talked about the importance of checking both major newspapers in a town for obituaries, and I included the text of each of the two obits I’d found for a particular ancestor. I included the citation for each article, because it seemed like the obvious smart thing to do. I do that whenever I talk about a specific document or resource.

But if I say, “Wisconsin became a state in 1848,” I don’t include a citation for that.

Opinions vary widely on this though, and I think it’s something each blogger has to decide for him/herself.


Susan Tiner February 24, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I’ll admit to being a boob, but will try to do better. Mostly I need to add some stuff I ordered separately to the tree.


Pumper February 25, 2011 at 10:00 am

Kerry, I just discovered your blog… What a treat for this “old guy”. Having just started back into genealogy after almost 40 years of doing very little, I can tell you how important it is to site one’s sources. Having been one who did very little. Thanks again.


Joan Miller (Luxegen) March 6, 2011 at 11:45 am

Wonderful blog post and discussion Kerry! You’ve hit the button as we’ve all been there in our learning curve. My philosophy is good, better, best.

We all strive to do our best and while we were learning what ‘best’ is we ‘do good’. The journey along the way from ‘good’ to ‘best’ makes us ‘better’.

I care not to dampen enthusiasm and encourage all no matter where they are in their own personal good, better, best genealogical journey. There is nothing more exciting than a new genealogist on the chase even if they haven’t gotten to ‘better or ‘best’. Those who are at ‘best’ can encourage and gently guide to the benefit of all.


Kelley March 10, 2011 at 2:57 pm

I completely agree with you Kerry! When I started out as a genealogist more then a decade ago, I was more about finding names and not worrying about source citations. I hit a few cultists along the way who told me my research wasn’t good enough because I had no sources (and for some of my info I still don’t have sources)….. which almost turned me off to genealogy. Fortunately, I had a few patient people who belonged to the “Church of Citations” who took me under their wing and taught me to source info. Having been only a few years removed from college, I took their instructions very well and now try to cite every piece of info I find. I also am finding that I am now instructing the newer generations of genealogists in my family as I venture into my husband’s side of the family for the first time and deal with some of his family for whom sources don’t seem to need citations.


Genette Spear March 10, 2011 at 8:40 pm

My great aunt did alot of genealogical research on my mother’s family. She cited her sources, although not in the format considered “correct”. I am using her handwritten research, family sheets, notes, etc. So if I am using those as a source, do I cite her AND the original? Citing just her doesn’t seem practical since I am the only one with a copy of her stuff. I source what I can, but those things are confusing to me.


Harold Henderson March 11, 2011 at 6:28 am

Good question, Genette. It’s fine to rely on others’ work as long as your readers (including you yourself in the future) understand that’s what you’re doing. The basic idea is that *you* cite what *you* looked at. (Elizabeth Mills calls this the “hand-holding” principle: cite what you’re holding in your hand.) If you’re relying on her notes, cite them and say the only copies are in your possession. (Both for your convenience and others, you can mention what she cited, but don’t claim to have seen material you didn’t see.) If you have had the chance to check her work by looking at some of the sources she cited, then by all means cite them instead.


P. Caverly March 13, 2011 at 6:49 am

Point taken but, how many newbies are going to look through a book of over 800 pages while trying to do some family history.


Tessa March 14, 2011 at 9:04 am

Like so many things the 800 page book is there for the person who wants to get into the nuts and bolts – BUT the introduction for each chapter and the examples are there for the person who wants the answer (wants fish but doesn’t want to learn to fish) or is just getting started.

You can sample the product (just a nibble) and not eat the whole thing (certainly not at one sitting). That is the beauty (in my humble opinion) of ESM’s work – as you learn and become more proficient, her book is available to provide you more and more detailed information. Much better in my opinion that something quick and easy that has no greater depth the more involved you get.

This is similar to a genealogy database. At the beginning you may use 2% of the available “tools” in your database. AND that is good enough at the start. Later as you spend more time, learn more, and get more comfortable with your research, you start using the various tools (and add-ons) for a richer experience. Would you want the bare bones database and then have to change programs or do you want to peel away the layers of the onion as you need them or you become more proficient.

For my purposes – give me the big picture, let me use what works today knowing I can come back tomorrow for seconds.


Genette Spear March 20, 2011 at 10:34 pm

I just recieved the 885 page book (to give credit where credit is due). It is very easy to follow and understand. There are examples at the beginning of each chapter and I have already started with sticky notes on the ones that are going to be of most use to me. It is an excellent resource and I plan on recommending it to our local genealogy society as a purchase for the local library’s genealogy section. As a newbie to citing sources, it will be a great help. Not only will I be able to cite what I find in the future, I can cite all the gazillions of documents I have now and correct the citations I have already attempted. Thank you for the suggestion. It will truly help me and reinforces my decision to subscribe to this blog.


WyoSpring June 10, 2011 at 9:28 am

I started doing genealogy as a kid in 1957 when we moved to a “Morman Town,” and I went to Mutual on Weds. (No, I did not become a member of the LDS church, but I did get a lifetime hobby.), I asked my maternal grandfather names, dates and places. He was my original source and ever since then I have tried to document and find sources for what he said. I have not found one mistake in his information. He told me what he knew for three generations, and I have been able to fill in the blanks for correct spellings and dates, etc. And since then I have taken the genealogy back 400 years-16 generations-slow process as more documents and information has become available. I have since 1957 written down sources–just knew that would be important some day. One glitch when I researched in the LDS Library in Salt Lake–when it was in the old Montgomery Wards bldg., I found some info. on microfilms–wrote down film number, page, etc. and even copied the page. Later when trying to find the film, I found out all the film #’s were changed. I don’t think I have converted all those old #’s to new numbers, but why should I. This redoing and redoing is a HUGE waste of time. I copied the information–have the marriage certificate, etc. in my genealogy books, so redoing all that source information is not on my list of todo’s. I want to find more–pictures, histories, etc.—there is so much out there now. Yes, I am still sourcing, but not in detail like some are proposing. Having a copy of the document with the film #, page, translation and date found are good enough for me. And if someone wants to go back and add to my sourcing they can, but I would bet they would not change or add to the original information, which is what I am fanatical about!
What a great topic this was and I enjoyed reading it all!


Angela Kraft July 21, 2011 at 2:40 pm

I agree with your post. I am still learning proper citation formatting, but when I teach people how to get their kids involved, I want them not to be intimidated and turned off by this. Do you really think a child who is first learning to use real records with a parent, who too is just learning to use a record, is really going make the most of their research if they are freaked out about how they cited their source? I teach that you gather everything (name of document, kind of document, dates, repositories, etc.), and that the format will be learned and perfected over time.

We need to be more inviting. The only reason I haven’t run away yet is because this is important to me and I am trying to become certified (long road ahead yet). But honestly, it is very intimidating, and not welcoming if you’re going to be scoffed at and scolded, even when you have all of the elements present. After all, Elizabeth Shown Mills didn’t come into this field knowing how to format everything. She had to learn and develop a style that, though is now a standard, was not always so. We as beginners also need time to develop and learn the process.

Thanks for the posy.
Angela Kraft


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