Genealogy and citations: Problems and solutions

One of the biggest problems I have in my genealogy research is the proper citation of information and evidence I have gathered.  For years I simply added the information to my trees, after making sure it was correct information, but I failed to cite my source, or if I did, I did it in such a fashion that I was not able to relocate it several years later.

With this lesson firmly in place, here is the information regarding proper citation of records and evidence in genealogical research, not only for you, but to help reinforce it for myself.

One of the many questions I have had is what style should genealogical citation be in. There is the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the American Psychological Association (APA) style, the Modern Language Association (MLA) style, Turabian style, and several others that are industry specific but will probably never be used for genealogical research.  Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab published a pdf download of the different styles, side by side, for different sources.[1]  While this is helpful, it is still confusing, at least to my simple mind.

Now there is a style that is more or less genealogy based and is generally called, within the genealogy community, the Mills Style, named after Elizabeth Shown Mills who authored the book, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace[2]. This book takes the CMS and gives additional citation guidance to genealogists for the myriad of unusual documents they may come across during their research.

Now, it may be part of my OCD, but in one source the citation elements are separated by commas[3], another with periods[4], and yet I have seen others separated by semicolons.  The Board for Certification of Genealogists uses a period to separate the elements of their citations, and yet one of the people they reference many times in their works and on their website, Elizabeth Shown Mills, uses commas to separate her elements of citations.

Which one is it?  I have not found a clear answer as of this date.

Citations need to be able to point someone to the exact place of the information you are using, and to the exact piece of information.  If you are using a website and use find a digital copy of a death certificate you need to indicate not only the original source of the death certificate, but the website and access date you found it. This will result in “nested” citations, which I will reference later.

In the past, I would simply cite where the original document or evidence is located and disregard the website, periodical, or book that I found it in.  My thought was if the author of that book or website had found it, and cited it, then there was no reason to do double duty.  This is very misleading as I found some information that was “cited” actually did not exist; it was simply there to bolster the evidence the author was trying to use to support their lackadaisical research.

So, source citations basically take on a very basic format. It needs to tell you:

  • the author, compiler, or holder of the information,
  • the title or name of the informational source,
  • item type if it is an online database or picture,
  • the name of the book, periodical, or website,
  • the place of publication or website URL, in parenthesis,
  • the date of publication or the date of access to the website,
  • page number, chapter number, or other means of locating the information,
  • if needed, any comments or notes regarding this citation.

An example for citation from a book would be:

Sammataro, D., Avitabile, A., The Beekeeper’s Handbook, Fourth Edition, Ithaca, (NY, Cornell University Press, 2011)

If there is a particular chapter or page you are interested in referencing, the citation would be:

Sammataro, D., Avitabile, A., “Demaree Method,” The Beekeeper’s Handbook, Fourth Edition, (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2011), 159.

You can also add more information if you like to the citation, and this is highly recommended:

Sammataro, D., Avitabile, A., “Demaree Method,” The Beekeeper’s Handbook, Fourth Edition, (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2011), 159. Discusses using the Demaree method to control hive population through ten simple steps. A disadvantage to this technique is you must locate the queen.

Citing a website is very similar, and follows the same rules as a publication:

Cushman, Dave, “Demareeing: A manipulation method of honey bee colonies,” Dave Cushman’s Beekeeping and Bee Breeding Website, (http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/demaree.html [accessed 10 Nov 2015])

Another unique problem within genealogical research is the references of an original work or document in a book, an index, an online database, or scans of original documents found online.  Citing these sources of evidence is basically “nesting” the citations so all of the information is present.  You find examples of this on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.  An example would be the death certificate of Laura Henderson, who died 30 Oct 1941 in Conroe, Montgomery County, Texas.

A copy of her death certificate is available online at Ancestry.com. When you pull up the record the citation information at the bottom of the page says:

Source Information

Ancestry.com. Texas, Death Certificates, 1903–1982 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.

Original data:

Texas Department of State Health Services. Texas Death Certificates, 1903–1982. iArchives, Orem, Utah.

Description

This database contains death certificates from the Texas Department of State Health Services, for the years 1903–1982. Some related documents—such as reports of death, amendments to certificate of death, disinterment permits, and notices of removal—are included as well.[5]

Now, if I go to FamilySearch.org, search and locate the very same record, at the bottom of the page it says:

“Texas, Deaths, 1890-1976,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K394-5N7 : accessed 10 November 2015), Laura Henderson, 30 Oct 1941; citing certificate number 47260, State Registrar Office, Austin; FHL microfilm 2,138,747.[6]

I would say the second one, the one from FamilySearch.org, does a better job of not only citing the information, but makes it easier to copy that information over.

Then there comes another problem.  Citation references state you should list the author or complier first in the citation, no matter which style you use.  That means that Ancestry.com is correct, sort of.  Also, Texas does not have a State Registrar Office’ the information on vital statistics is located at the Texas Department of State Health Services.

So, the proper citation would actually look like:

FamilySearch, “Texas, Deaths, 1890-1976,” database with images,  (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K394-5N7 [accessed 10 November 2015]), Laura Henderson, 30 Oct 1941; citing certificate number 47260, Texas Department of State Health Services, Austin; FHL microfilm 2,138,747

So citing your sources of evidence is very important, not only so you can relocate the information later, but so can others in the future.  It also allows you to grade, or review, the information presented to determine how important it is.  There is a lot of misinformation out there, whether it is intentional by the folks giving the information, or unintentional.  I don’t know how many times I have looked at a death certificate with a birth date of 1887 and yet I was able to locate that very same person in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census.  By having proper citations of your sources you can go back and review, examine, and determine what the truth in your research is.


[1] Purdue University, “The Purdue OWL: Citation Chart,” Purdue Online Writing Lab: Citation Style Chart (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/media/pdf/20110928111055_949.pdf [accessed 10 Nov 2015])

[2] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007).

[3] Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Model,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-17-evidence-analysis-process-map [accessed 10 Nov 2015])

[4] Angeli, E., Wagner, J., Lawrick, E., Moore, K., Anderson, M., Soderlund, L., & Brizee, A. (2010, May 5). General format. (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/01/ [accessed 10 Nov 2015])

[5] Ancestry.com, “Texas Death Certificates, 1903-1982,” online database with images, (http://interactive.ancestry.com/2272/40394_b062208-01896 [accessed 10 Nov 2015]), Lura Menderson, 30 Oct 1941; citing certificate number 47260, Texas Department of State Health Services, Austin, Texas.

[6] FamilySearch, “Texas, Deaths, 1890-1976,” database with images,  (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K394-5N7 [accessed 10 November 2015]), Laura Henderson, 30 Oct 1941; citing certificate number 47260, Texas Department of State Health Services, Austin, Texas; FHL microfilm 2,138,747.