Geni Podcast: Citing Your Sources

Posted April 7, 2011 by Geni | One Comment

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Show Notes:

Collaborative Genealogy

  • What does “citing your sources” mean?

When you perform genealogy research, you work with sources such as a database, a book, a newspaper article, or even a website.  These are all sources of information.

When you locate information that can substantiate the facts about your family history (a birth date, a death location, etc.), you should cite not only the source itself, but the specific location within the source (page, column/paragraph, index number, etc.).

  • Why is it important to cite your sources in your genealogy research?

Many beginners to genealogy research dismiss the importance of source citations.  Here are some reasons why they should be taken seriously:

    • Eliminate research “redos.” What if you need clarification on a fact related to a birth date or marriage location?  Would you know where your current information came from?  Or would you need to start the whole search process over again?  Citing your source the first time eliminates the need to redo research.
    • Evaluate credibility of sources. A fact such as a death date can have several sources (Social Security Death Index, death certificate, obituary, etc.) and thus several citations.  You can rank the credibility of these sources and compare them to each other by easily knowing where the information came from.
    • Assist fellow researchers. Very often we are asked to share research on specific family lines with others.  Our colleagues can easily locate the same information if they have access to the sources.
    • Build your reputation. Eventually you may be asked to publish your research in a genealogy magazine or journal.  In order to meet not only publishing requirements but generally accepted genealogy research practices, you will need to supply source citations for your research.
  • Is there a set format for citing sources? How do I know if I am using the correct format?

One of the most common misperceptions about citing your sources – and an issue which often scares beginning genealogists – is that there is only one acceptable format.

Genealogy source citation formats are similar to any source citation formats you may have used in high school or college when writing a research paper.  You can use these same formats such as Chicago style (as in The Chicago Manual of Style) or the Turabian style (as in the A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses and Dissertations authored by Kate L. Turabian).

Luckily in the genealogy field we have several handy resources including:

  • The Do’s and Don’ts of Citing Your Sources
    • Don’t delay capturing your source information.  In the excitement of “the find,” we often say to ourselves, “I’ll go back later and cite my source.”  Certain sources can later be elusive such as websites and online databases.
    • Use a genealogy database application that helps you capture your source citations by providing formatting hints or templates.
    • Take advantage of style guides such as reference sheets and even online bibliography generation sites.
    • Be consistent.  If you select a certain citation style, stick to it and don’t mix various formats.
    • Specific source types require specific citation formats.  A format for a source such as a book should not be used for an online database or website.
    • When citing Internet-based sources, always note when the source was located, i.e. “accessed on 29 March 2009.”
    • Avoid the use of ibid or its abbreviation id. which is Latin for in the same place.  Using Id. to refer to the previous citation can be dangerous if citations become sorted out of order.
  • How do I share my source citations with other genealogists and family historians?

There are various ways you can share our source citations with others:

    • Use the source function for each fact in your genealogy database software or even with online programs such as Many of these programs will not only allow you to enter source information, but some will even provide templates or formatting guidelines.
    • When writing a family history narrative or even a book to share with family, use the endnote function in your word processing program. I often recommend endnotes (which appear at the end of the document) over footnotes (which appear at the bottom of each page) since they are less disruptive to the reader. In addition, most of our family members are not interested in source citations so having them at the end is better.
    • If you have a website or a blog, consider posting your source citations along with your post. Some genealogy bloggers are part of the Got Sources? initiative: a way to let readers know that even if a post doesn’t list source citations, the author can be contacted and will provide the information to other researchers. Click to learn more and how you can participate.

Resources for Further Reading (Updated 4/11/2011)

To learn more about Thomas MacEntee, visit his about page here.


Grant Brunner: Welcome to the Geni Podcast. I’m Grant Brunner, and with me today is Thomas MacEntee. How are you, Thomas?

Thomas MacEntee: Hey, how are you doing? I’m doing fine.

Grant: Things are going very, very well with the Geni Podcast. We are now available on iTunes, which is great. So if you’re interested in finding the Geni Podcast on iTunes, you can now do that very easily. Today, I want to talk about citing your sources, what does that mean, things like that. Let’s start off with the very, very basics. What does it mean to cite your sources in a genealogical context?

Thomas: It’s a good question. I think it’s very important, especially for beginning genealogists and family historians, to hear the term “citing your sources,” but it’s not very often that you can get a good definition of what it means. Basically, when you’re performing the genealogy research, you are working with sources. Sources would be like a database, an ancestry database, a book, a newspaper article. It could even be a family tree on

That would be the source of the information that you’re adding to your own genealogy database. These are all sources of information or when you locate information that you can substantiate the facts about your family history.

An example, we’ll take your great-grandfather’s birth-date. Let’s say that you locate that information over on, that you want to be able to cite that information.

You want to be able to cite it and the specific location where you found it. You can’t just say You should say the Brunner family tree, so-and-so Brunner, maybe a page number, a column, or an index number. That’s what citing a source means.

Grant: Why is it important to cite your sources as far as your genealogy research goes on the whole?

Thomas: It’s important. In a way, Grant, I wish that someone many years ago had told me how important it was, because I have had to go back now and cite my sources for information that I researched almost 20 years ago. The number-one reason I find is that it eliminates the need to do a do-over or a re-do. What if you did research five years ago on that great-grandfather’s birth-date, used some resource, maybe a web page?

How are you going to locate that information? Are you going to remember what the URL is, what page that was? That information, you might need to start that whole search all over again.

But, if you had a citation for that source, basically that citation tells you the location, what you pulled out of that location or that source, and how it’s used to substantiate the fact. It makes it much easier to go back and verify your research.

Also, it allows you to evaluate the credibility of sources. Let’s take a death date, for example. You might look at Social Security Death Index, a death certificate, an obituary for that same information.

They’re not all equal as sources. You could rank the credibility of sources. I would rank an obituary much lower than I would a death certificate, and the reason for this is an obituary is very often written by a family member dictated to a funeral director.

Things get dropped. Dates get switched around. It’s not as substantial as a death certificate. That’s why it’s important to cite your sources so we know what the sources are and verify the credibility or evaluate the credibility of those sources.

Another reason that you want to do this citing your sources is to help out other researchers. When I find that someone has posted a family tree, it helps me to go to the sources tab and see that there are sources there, that someone has put the time to put that information in, and that they can substantiate the information on their family tree or on a printed narrative that they’ve written for their family history.

Finally, it also helps build your reputation as a researcher. If you are going to collaborate, and we’ve talked about that in a recent podcast, if you are going to collaborate with others, if you’re going to share your information, people want to know that your information is good, that it’s valid, and that it has something behind it to back it up.

I know that a lot of magazines and journals want source citations, especially the academic ones. It’s really the only way it works. If you are going to say, “This is so-and-so’s birth-date,” you should be able to prove it, and that only helps to build your reputation as a researcher.

Grant: When you’re working with something like Geni, which is a world family tree where everybody’s connected to everybody else, sourcing becomes extremely important. Because, yes, nobody’s really going to worry so much about the accuracy of you and your grandfather because that’s pretty well-known among you and your family.

But, when you’re dealing with you and your 25th great-grandfather, all of a sudden as many sources as possible makes it a whole lot easier to work with, and it makes sure that the information is valid.

The great part about working with other people is that everybody can add sources all into one thing and that nobody needs to redo all of the work by adding the same sources over and over again, which is one of the benefits.

Is there some sort of format for citing your sources? How do you know that you’re doing it in the correct way?

Thomas: I think that’s one of the biggest misperceptions, and that’s really why people sometimes get scared in terms of citing sources, because they think that there’s some formula, that maybe the citation police are going to come and knock on their door and say that they did it wrong. You have to think back to high school and college when you were writing research papers. When you did have to do your footnotes or end notes, you probably used styles such as the Chicago Style, which is derived from “The Chicago Manual of Style,” or also what’s known as the Turabian Style, which is from a book called “A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.” It was written by somebody named Kate Turabian.

These went through how to cite maybe a magazine article, how to cite a newspaper column, etc.

In the genealogy field, we actually have several resources, all of them written or compiled by Elizabeth Shown Mills, who I basically call the source citation goddess, and comprehensive.

The first one that I recommend is my bible, is my gospel. It is 900-plus pages. I do carry it around in my backpack. I know it’s kind of crazy. It’s called “Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace.”

Believe me, if there’s something that can be cited as a source, Elizabeth Shown Mills has covered it for genealogy. You can cite anything from an article to a zeppelin exhibit.

She doesn’t talk about it in the book, but this is a woman that was able to cite a piece of bathroom wallpaper for her husband’s genealogy, believe it or not. She had a format on how to cite something like that.

The other two that I have here are basically quick sheets that she’s developed with the Genealogical Publishing Corporation. One is called “Citing Online Historical Resources,” and the other one is called “ Databases and Images.”

Grant: Of course, there will be links in the show notes. Now that we have a basic understanding of sources and how we go about citing them, what are some of the dos and don’ts that you should follow when you’re trying to be a good genealogy citizen?

Thomas: Well, it does take a lot of discipline, and these are the things that you need to keep in mind. Again, you’re not going to get it right the first time, especially the beginner. This takes time. Maybe attend a webinar dealing with citing your sources, or if you’re at a genealogy conference go ahead and attend a class.

First thing and foremost is don’t delay in capturing your source information. Very often we’ll say to ourselves, “Oh, I’ll go back and I’ll do that later.” If you’re dealing with a website or an online database, that URL may change. That site may no longer be there.

That happened to be me recently when dealing with a database of Jewish consumptives, people with tuberculosis, in Denver in the 1920s. It was part of my research at Boston University.

Then I just went back last week to look at it, and the database is gone. Luckily, I had cited my source, and I had the citation that said where that database was.

So number one is don’t delay. Do it now. Do it right away as you’re doing your research.

Also, I would use a genealogy database application or some program that helps you capture your source citations. Family Tree Maker, Legacy Family Tree, RootsMagic, all the software programs, they have templates and hints.

It was nice to see in when you go the sources tab, it breaks it down into type of source and gives you a little bit of guidance. Those really help.

You should also take advantage of style guides, reference sheets, which I just referenced, “Evidence Explained.” It really helps to have something where you can look it up and say, “Oh, that’s how I should cite something from the 1900 Census.

You also want to be consistent. If you select a certain citation style, you want to stick to it, and don’t mix formats. You just want to stick with it.

Also, specific source types require specific citation formats. So, if you’re citing a book, realize that it’s not going to be the same format as citing an online database or a website. You should really take time to go through the different formats.

Another important feature is when citing Internet-based sources you have to note when the source was located. To give you an example, the one that I just did for the Jewish consumptives in Colorado, I luckily noted that I had accessed it on the 29th of March, 2009.

That would explain to someone when they went to the site now that it no longer existed. I could prove that it actually existed, and that’s how the information looked on that date.

Then finally, you want to avoid the use of the word “ibid.” or “id.” which a lot of us have used maybe if you’ve done footnotes. It means “the same as above.”

We often do that, and then your footnotes get moved around, and you’re really not referring to the proper previous footnote. Always spell out your source citation.

Grant: How do I go about sharing my source citations with other genealogists and historians so that they can use them as well?

Thomas: That’s a good question. Getting back to the genealogy database software and online programs like, you collaborate and you can share those sources with other people. That really helps, especially when there are templates and formatting guidelines. So either go online or use a standalone software package. Also, when you’re writing the family history narrative or maybe a book to share with family, what I recommend is use end notes instead of footnotes. You want to use the end note function in Microsoft Word or OpenOffice or StarOffice or even Google Docs.

This is why I recommend end notes, Grant, is they appear at the end of the document, not at the end of the page, and so they’re less disruptive. Usually when I share with Mom and Dad or my grandparents, they’re not interested in the source citations.

That stuff impresses my genealogy friends. It doesn’t really impress my family. It can also be very confusing. It could break up the reading of the page.

That’s what I really recommend is that when you’re doing something, a piece of writing that you’re sharing, with family especially, do end notes and put them at the end of the document.

Finally, if you have a website or a blog, consider posting your source citations. Some of us do. It can be very tedious. It can be difficult to format it for a website.

There is also an initiative among the bloggers called Got Sources? It’s almost a take-off of the Got Milk campaign. Basically, it’s a little sticker or a badge in the sidebar that lets people know that on a blog post that I’ve written about my family history, you may not see the source citations, but they do exist.

If you want to contact me, I’d be happy to provide them to you. It’s just that I don’t include them on my blog post because, again, my family reads my blog, and they find them confusing or disruptive, or they break up the flow of my blog. That’s why I don’t include them.

Grant: Where are a few places people can go to learn more about citing sources?

Thomas: There are a few good places to go. Number one, I would go to Cyndi’s List and just search for the word “citations.” It’ Again, the link is in the show notes. But that’s where I would go, and she has a lot of hyperlinks dealing with this. There’s also a genealogy source citation sheet that I’ve come up with. The link is in the show notes, and it’s very easy to understand a lot of the reasons why you want to cite your sources, different formats, etc.

And then also there is an Internet citation guide for genealogists at website. Again, that link is in the show notes.

Grant: That’s great, Thomas. Now why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you do and where people can find you on the Net?

Thomas: Usually they can find me at High-Definition Genealogy, It’s probably one of the best ways to keep tabs on what I’m doing. Also at Two things I’ve got coming up. I’ve got a great webinar coming up on Thursday, April 21. It’s a free webinar on Dropbox: “Dropbox for Genealogists.”

If you’ve ever wondered what this whole computing in the cloud concept is, and if you ever wanted a central place to store your data and synchronize it among different computers or mobile devices, that’s the webinar to attend.

You go to Legacy Family Tree Webinars, search for them on Google, or look at the show notes and register. It’s about 90 minutes. It’s going to be a great webinar.

The other thing is I’m still busy with GeneaBloggers Radio. We have a great episode coming up on Friday night.

It’s the last night of “Who Do You Think You Are?” here in the U.S. They’re showing the Ashley Judd episode. I guess she actually is able to trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower, supposedly.

So, we’re going to feature Josh Taylor from the New England Historic Genealogical Society on the radio show. He’s going to talk about what it was like to work on the show, work with Ashley Judd.

We’re also going to focus mostly on colonial-period genealogy. I’ve got a few other guests that are lined up that are going to talk about Mayflower ancestors, the Daughters of the American Revolution, how to apply to those societies, what type of records you can find and use.

GeneaBloggers Radio is from nine to 11 Central Time. It’s on the Internet. It’s free, and you can call in and talk to us if you want. But it’s a great way to extend that genealogy experience.

Grant: Thanks so much for your time, Thomas. For the Geni Podcast, I’m Grant Brunner. Thanks for listening, and have a good one.