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Citing Your Documents
Once a document has been found, and a copy made, the most important thing a researcher can do is to cite (or record) the reference data about that source. This information should be recorded on the document itself, so that if the record copy or abstract notes are ever separated from the family record, it can still be identified, and also added to the family group record to which that information applies. Citing your documents adds credibility to the research you produce. Commonly, the information that should be included in a citation are:
- Name of the record
- Author’s name
- Source description
- Publication information
- Location of record
- Catalog number for record
Greater detail can be given for source identification, but the goal is to define the source and direct the reader to where the record can be found.
The following are examples of simple (imaginary) citations:
- Smith County, Arkansas; Recorder of Deeds, Deed Record 1846-1853, Volume 4, pg. 358. (William Jones to Bob Smith). (FHL#642,889)
- William Gunnison, History of Courtney County, North Dakota, 1866-1979. (Willow Springs Press: Bismarck, ND. 1979)263. (FHL#978.446, H2g)
- William B. Cherry Family Bible (American Bible Society: Baltimore, MD 1864). Bible in possession of Anna Leigh Cooper, Smithfield, Iowa in 2009.
For detailed instruction on citing record sources, we recommend:
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained. (Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Publishing Co. 2007) 885 pp., ISBN: 978-8063-1781-6
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, BCG Standards Manual. (Orem, UT: Ancestry Publishing. 2000) 125 pp., ISBN: 0-916489-92-2
Documenting your research and citing sources trains a genealogist to be more accurate in their studies. Such training creates good habits. Without such habits a genealogy author may fall victim to the temptation to “convince” his readers that his research findings are justified by using incorrect or even false documentation. I recently studied a published family history that appeared to be well researched, and documented. But on closer examination I discovered that one source pertaining to one person mentioned in the history, was false. The author identified the ancestor as listed in the 1830 Census of Clinton County, Illinois, when in fact the ancestor appeared in the 1830 Census of neighboring St. Clair County, Illinois. This may seem like a small issue, but I found that the source and citation were referred to in on-line correspondence of researchers who hadn’t confirmed the source themselves, and were now passing false information on to others. Remember “Petty’s Paradigm”, when something is published it becomes fact, and when it is quoted it becomes gospel truth. To the unsuspecting this inaccurate and false information can take on a life of its own; and to me, who checked the sources, it meant all of the information in the published history was now suspect. If the author could do this with one person, he may have done it with others. In some ways it would have been better to have never published the book. The ingredients to this chocolate cake weren’t right, and it didn’t taste like it should have.
Preparing a record to be worthy of all acceptation is really a simple matter of taking the time and interest to prepare it properly, that all who see it can accept it as an accurate and truthful document. When we make the effort to prepare our records with this care and interest, we discover that the people for whom we do this work become that much more dear to us. We learn to love them, our hearts turn to them; and in turn that love speaks out through the records we prepare. It is the love for our fathers speaking through our efforts to make such a record, that makes our records worthy of acceptation. The recipe is in the details; and when the details have been properly applied, the result is delicious to all.
Early family group records filed at the Family History Library provided a small box at the bottom of the sheet for “source information.” The most common source cited was “family records”. This is like describing ingredients to make a chocolate cake as “stuff from the pantry.” Some researchers may think that defining family sources as “family bible”, “letters from cousins”, and “cemetery inscriptions” might be sufficient, but general terms such as these are like defining cake ingredients as chocolate, flour, and oil. Even worse is when the source cited is someone else’s undocumented information, which is like saying “the stuff someone put in my cupboard.” Wow, that doesn’t even sound safe to eat.
Documenting Genealogy Events
Documenting a genealogy event means finding an accurate record or selection of records defining that event. Many if not most historical documents exist because a human being has recorded information. However, all people make mistakes, and it is often necessary, or even wise, to combine several sources to establish an event that is as close to accurate as possible.
An ancestor’s birth may have occurred prior to when government vital records were kept. Consequently, birthdates may be drawn from… a family Bible, a death certificate, a newspaper birth announcement, a church christening record, a census record, a military pension file, a tombstone inscription, school records, driver’s licenses, and dozens of additional possibilities. Each one of these sources were made for a specific reason, which reason can affect the validity of the information. Generally speaking, resources closest to the event, and reflecting the testimony of a witness to the event, primary sources, are the most correct and sought after. Ten researchers could find ten different sources with ten different sets of information about the same event. Each one of those accounts is valuable information if it is considered within the context of the time, place, and people involved. (Part 4 to follow)