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By James J. Czuchra

Why bother?
We have all experienced the exhilaration of finding new information on some elusive ancestor.  Where did we find that information?  Did we remember to write that down too?  This article deals with the issue of documenting your research.  I have needed to go back to a source occasionally because I forgot to write something down or was puzzled by something that maybe fresh eyes years later might have been able to interpret.  Imagine my frustration when I haven’t fully described my source and have to find it again! Or if someone has shared research information with you, don’t you want to know where they got the information?  Are they just making stuff up?  Good documentation lets you go back and check the facts. 

The Term Paper Analogy
How should genealogical information be documented?  There is no one hard and fast standard for genealogy.  With the internet and other electronic publications, even old standards have had to be updated.  I was lent a book written by Elizabeth Shown Mills called Evidence Explained.  It is a large reference book that addresses the issues of documentation.  It’s not the kind of book you would read from cover to cover but is more of a reference book from which you would consult relevant sections.  Here’s what I gleaned from what I read.  Sources are the physical things that provide information.  For genealogists, these are microfilms, newspapers, personal interviews, books, certificates, etc.  In documenting sources, Ms. Mills describes three types of source entries.  One is called the “Source List Entry”.  This is a general description of a source providing enough information for locating it.  I find it helpful to think of a Source List Entry as the bibliography part of a term paper that you may have had to do for school.  The second source entry is called a “First Reference Note.”  The First Reference Note repeats much of the same information as the Source List Entry but includes details that support the specific information you used.  This is where a page number or access date would be given.  The third source entry is a “Subsequent Note”.  It is a shorter form of a First Reference Note used when citing a source already cited elsewhere.  It too provides details in support of information you used.  I think of First Reference and Subsequent Notes as footnotes or endnotes in a term paper.  The book gives examples of each entry for a variety of sources.

Source Reliability - What do I cite?
One of the mistakes many amateur genealogists make is using information from an online source and citing the original source from which the online information is derived.  This is proper only if you have actually consulted the original source yourself.  You would cite the original source because the record was probably created by participants at the time of the event.  It therefore is the most reliable source of information even if you used a derivative source to lead you to the original.  If you have not gone back to the original source or other intermediate, you should cite the online source instead.  In migrating from paper to film to database, information can be lost or misinterpreted.  Citing the derivative source will let others know that that it does not carry the same weight as an original source because of possible errors.  While microfilm sources are often treated as though they are as good as the originals, the point can be made that a black and white copy may make erasures or other alterations to the original harder to detect than if you worked with a true original.  I have encountered cases of missing pages on microfilm.  Did the photographer skip the pages accidentally?  Or was there a page numbering error?  Was a page left out or torn out?   Only looking at the original can help answer those questions.  The point of this rather long winded paragraph is that you cite the most reliable source you actually used

Original--> Film --> Online database
Most reliable-----------> Least reliable

For more detailed information
The following are just a few web based articles addressing citations.  Many contain links to other articles for even more information.

For a good overview of why we should cite our sources and types of sources, consult

For a Citation Guide for Electronic Sources, consult
http://www.progenealogists.com/citationguide.htm  This site provides examples and cut and paste templates.

The following provides links to other works that deal with citing research.

For an overview of General Citation Components, consult

Potential Problem
Most computer programs for maintaining your family history have built-in features for documenting your facts.  For example, Family Tree Maker provides a facility for entering a Master Source List (bibliography).  It also provides the ability to attach Reference Notes (footnotes/endnotes) to most facts.  The only problem I have seen discussed comes when you share your work with others.  A common way that is done when individuals do not use the same program is to export the data as a GEDCOM file.  The GEDCOM standard does not provide tags for all the pieces of a citation that the sending program might use.  This means the receiving program might not import all of the citation or has to be told what to do with certain components.

It’s easy to get hung up on the format of how sources are cited, but don’t let that stop you from doing something!  I have included some internet links to websites that provide more explanation than I provide here.  They also provide examples.  One site shows internet sources placed in angle brackets, <>.  But Evidence Explained discourages that because angle brackets and curly brackets, {}, have other uses with computers.  If there’s any criticism of your research to be made, let it be that “you put a website address in angle brackets” rather than “you must be making this up because you don’t tell us where you got your information.”


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