It can’t be said enough how important it is to document every single thing you add to your official family history. Citing sources is something that should be second nature to any serious family historian. If you are not already doing it, you should start, and make it a habit. You may think it’s not important to cite your sources, or that it takes too much time. Those are the reasons most beginners give for not citing. The fact is, there are many good reasons why you need to be doing this. Here are some of the top reasons to always cite your sources.
Documentation Makes It Easy for Others to Follow Your Research
If you are putting a lot of work into your family history research, you may be surprised to know that others may use it for their own research one day. This is especially true if you are going to publish your work (or already have). Even if your own immediate descendants don’t seem interested in genealogy, you don’t know what generations down the line, or collateral relatives, will be interested in it. Even those who aren’t related to you may take an interest in your work, for someone who married into your family, the area your family lived in, or some other historically significant reason.
When you cite your sources, you are providing these people with a map to your work. They can follow what you did, check the sources you used and read the original documents for themselves, find artifacts you discovered in museums and other places and go look at them, and even fact check your work, correcting any mistakes they find. This helps everyone because it makes a more accurate family history. With citations, future researchers will have more confidence that your work is an authentic piece of historical writing that can be trusted, and they will use it and recommend it to others as a reliable research tool.
Documentation Makes It Easier for You to Follow Your Own Work
If you are doing a lot of research on many different family lines, chances are high that you will work on one line for a while, leave it (sometimes for years) while you work on other lines, and then come back to it again to work on it some more. If you don’t document your sources, there is a strong chance you may repeat some of your own research. You won’t know where you found pieces of information and will find yourself looking them up again to make sure the information is correct. Making sure you document your sources means you won’t waste valuable research time going over sources you’ve already used in the past.
It will also show you what sources you have not used yet. Looking at your documentation shows you where you’ve been, and this gives you a good idea of where you need to go. You will see the gaps in your research, and be able to determine what sources you need to look up to fill them in. In this way, documenting your sources makes you a better, more effective and efficient, researcher.
Documentation is Necessary if You Want to Professionally Publish Your Work
If your aim is to publish your work in a professional genealogical journal or magazine or publish it as a book with a real publisher (and not just a vanity publisher), you will be required to document your sources. Genealogy is just like any other academic field when it comes to professional publications; sources are expected. No one will even look at your work, much less consider it for publication, if you do not include clearly cited sources.
Even if you just publish your work for your own family, you never know when it may gain attention outside of your circle of relatives. Your work might have significance to your community, or the community where your ancestors lived, and people there may want to read it. No one will be able to take it seriously without sources cited, and it will be an embarrassment to you. Your relatives will even take your work more seriously with cited sources, and look at you as a genealogical scholar, not just an amateur family historian.
Documentation Keeps You from Losing Things
Documentation isn’t just about recording where you found written sources. In today’s modern era, it is also about recording where you found electronic sources and even physical heirlooms. If you document your electronic sources, this documentation will include the website address where it is located. If you ever want to look at it again for additional information, or if a researcher in the future wants to find it, this can easily be done with your source citation. You will never lose track of your electronic sources again when you properly document them.
If you have found some interesting heirlooms associated with your family, your sources will show you where to find them again if you want to visit them or take others to see them. Nothing is more frustrating than knowing you saw a really amazing family heirloom in a museum, or in someone else’s house, and want to see it again or show it to another relative, and not be able to because you don’t remember where it’s actually located.
If you keep your heirlooms at your house, your documentation will make sure you never lose track of them. Other people who may go through your research years, decades, or even centuries later, will be able to find these heirlooms, and create a paper trail of their own of those heirlooms are moved, so they are never lost to history again. Documentation actually preserves precious heirlooms for future generations.
As you can see, documentation in family history research is incredibly important. It is important in a number of ways. If you haven’t started documenting, now is the time to start doing it. Get a guide on how to properly document for genealogy, then make it a habit. You’ll be so glad you did.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)