Getting Started Research Tips

Why Citing Sources is Crucial in Genealogy and How to Do it Right

Citing your sources provides future genealogists with a roadmap to your work.

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As a beginning genealogist, you may not give much thought to citing your sources in your research. However, it is a vitally important part of any serious type of genealogical pursuit. Citing sources serves a variety of purposes. Most importantly, it lets you know where you found your information. This is crucial as you get further into your research on a family. You may find new, conflicting information on a person you’ve already researched. By citing your sources as you go, you can see where you found the original information, look at it again, compare it to the new source or sources, and decide if one is more likely to be correct or more believable than the other.

More Reasons You Should Be Citing Your Genealogical Research

Citing your sources also provides future genealogists with a roadmap to your work. They can use this map to re-trace your steps, possibly discovering new information along the way that will help them verify your conclusions (or disprove them… that’s okay, as genealogists should always want the information in their family tree to be accurate, even if this means a flaw in their own research being exposed). If you want to publish your family history, you will need to have plenty of sources cited in order for it to be taken seriously in the genealogical world. A published family history with no sources cannot be proven and is therefore only good for passing along through the family, not for any serious genealogical scrutiny or discussion

Finally, if you ever want to become a certified genealogist (a good thing to be if you want to do genealogical research professionally for clients), you will need to know how to cite sources. The process for getting certified through the Board of Certification of Genealogists involves doing several different projects, both personal and for other people, and it all requires thorough and ample citing of sources in your work.

How to Cite Your Sources in Genealogy

The best way to go about citing your sources is to write down what you’ve found as you find it. While you’re researching, just make it a point to write down what record you are using. Make it a habit, and you will always have your sources handy for adding to your formal write-ups of your research or to your family tree software.

When you’re writing down your sources as you research, be sure to include the following information:

  • The name of the record source
  • The page number and publication date (if a book)
  • The volume, catalog, or other identification number (if not a book)
  • The location where the source was found
  • The date the source was found
  • What type of source it was (good if you’re citing a physical object as a source, like a headstone or family heirloom)
  • Who the source belongs to (if it is in the hands of a private owner and not a public repository)

What About Cyber Sources?

You should be treating cyber sources just the same as you would any other source. With so much genealogy being done in the Internet today, there is a very real need to be sure you’re keeping track of all of your online discoveries. Even if a website where you found information is no longer online in years to come, you will know where you originally discovered the information and may be able to find it again, if you’ve cited it correctly.

When you cite a CyberSource, you should be recording the name of the website where you found it, the URL of the website, and the date you accessed the website. You should also record the name of the source, the page number, original publication date, and any other typical information you would record for a regular source. With this information, you can always find the source online again as long as it is online (or in that particular place online), and you will know what the source’s original provenance is, so you can find it again if it is taken off of the Internet at some point. All of those cyber sources exist somewhere in the real world, so citing them in a way where you could find them online or in the physical world as needed is important.

Is There a Proper Way to Cite Sources for Scholarly Genealogical Work?

There are lots of resources online for how to properly cite your genealogical resources for scholarly work. This is the type of citation you should be doing if you are publishing a serious family history, submitting a genealogical article to a genealogy magazine or journal, or applying for certification with the Board of Certification of Genealogists.

The proper way to cite sources for scholarly work is very similar to the MLA style that most of us learned in high school and college for citing work in non-scientific papers (such as English or History classes). Genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills has written what the Board of Certification of Genealogists recommends as the definitive work on the subject of citing genealogical sources for scholarly work. It is a book called Evidence!

She has also written an updated version for the digital age that also includes how to cite artifacts and other non-paper sources called Evidence Explained. Both are books that any serious genealogist should have on their shelves and give you all the information you need to write and properly cite all of your sources for serious genealogical work.

Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace
by Elizabeth Shown Mills

Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian
by Elizabeth Shown Mills



Will founded Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been assisting researchers for over 25 years to reunite them with their ancestors.