By Barbara Wyley - based on her article published in The New Zealand Genealogist, August 2020
Acknowledgement: Barbara thanks the Ted Gilberd Literary Trust for proposing and encouraging the development of this guide to support the work of family history writers.
This introductory guide raises some of the issues involved in source citation and offers suggestions for a basic approach to good practice in recording your family history sources not only for our journal's articles, but also for blogs, other publications and genealogical databases.
Why do you cite your sources?
You cite your sources to:
- show readers where your information came from, and its context
- document the strength and depth of your research
- enable others to replicate your research and test your conclusions
- assist others researching the same family, time period or location
- give credibility to your research and the assertions you make in your writing
- acknowledge the work of others.
Failure to acknowledge the sources of information we've used reduces our writing to unsupported opinion rather than carefully researched facts, and can also lay us open to accusations of plagiarism, that is, using someone else's words or images or ideas as if they were your own.
What is a source?
A source is the record in which you found the specific piece of information you are using in your writing, whether that information is a quotation, a fact, an image or a theory.
What is a source citation?
A citation is a note describing your source of information and recording exactly where you found it.
The author checks a source for death information: the gravestone of her maternal great-great-grandparents, Elizabeth and Alfred Talbot WILLOUGHBY in the Wormley Churchyard, Hertfordshire, England, on 4 November 2005. Photo: T.L., used with permission.
For example, if the information is a date of death, you may have found it on a gravestone. The gravestone is your source.
But it's not enough just to state 'gravestone'. You need to add the name and location of the cemetery it stands in and ideally give the block, row and plot numbers. As gravestones are subject to damage overtime, from weather, earthquakes and vandalism, it would also be a good idea to give the date on which you visited the cemetery and transcribed the gravestone. These details will form your 'citation'.
What if your information was found on a website such as Ancestry, or Papers Past?
Ancestry is not a source. The item you found on the Ancestry website, and the ‘collection’ (data set) you found it within is your source, e.g., a census schedule within the 'UK Census Collection'. Ancestry is the publisher of the material you are referencing.
Similarly, Papers Past is not a source. The issue of the actual newspaper that you found the information in is your source, such as the Daily Southern Cross, 22 June 1864. Papers Past is the website on which it is published for the National Library.
Creating your source list while you research
Trying to reconstruct your research trail weeks, months or years later isn't impossible, but it can be difficult and frustrating. If you do it at the time, you will not be reliant on your memory later to know for certain where you found the information, and will be able to go back to it easily if needed. You will also be able to weigh its merit against information from other sources you discover subsequently that may present conflicting evidence.
Make sure you are citing the resource YOU used. Don't cite a record itself if you only consulted an index to it, and avoid citing sources given however often by other people if you have not seen them yourself, unless that situation and the reason for it is fully acknowledged. You can't be confident about anyone else's work, and would surely not want your work to be undermined by reliance on the possible inaccuracy of others.
What are the basic elements of a good source citation?
The four basic components of a source citation for a published work are: author, title, publication information, and details of chapter and/or page numbers.
Just as we genealogists have some conventions about how we record information, such as writing surnames in capital letters, there are some conventions about how sources are recorded. They differ between 'style manuals', but a simple and acceptable format is:
|Author ||Surname, First Name(s). [or initials] |
|Title ||In italics. |
|Publisher ||Name, Place, year. |
|Detail ||chapter/page number, or range of page numbers. |
For example: West, John. Village records. Phillimore, Chichester, 1982.p.62
Source citations for unpublished material, such as manuscripts, personal papers and archival items, have their own variations on these basics, as do those for material published on websites, as shown in the template below, and in the many examples provided in the full version of this article. Always keeping the four basic elements in mind will help you check whether you have included all the information you need to have in your citation, whatever the type of source you are citing.
An image on Pinterest inspired the development of the 'citation template' table:
Elements to include in a citation
Select only those appropriate for your source
|BOOK ||ITEM ||INTERNET |
|1. Author / editor ||Creator [follows title] ||Creator [follows title] |
|2. Book title |
|Item title/description |
'Title of Collection'
|Title of website |
'Title of database/page'
|3. Company, place of publication |
Date of publication
|[Not applicable to unpublished works] |
Date of creation/event
|Publisher / locator, |
|4. Extra details, e.g. chapter, page or entry numbers ||Repository details, reference numbers ||Any other details, e.g. permalink |
The table is a guide to selecting the appropriate elements to include in a citation for a publication (BOOK column), unpublished material such as certificates, archival documents or even family heirlooms (ITEM column), and material published online (INTERNET column). It also provides a guide to punctuating citations.
Think of your citation as a series of sentences, with one sentence for each of the four elements. Separate the parts of each element with a comma. End each element with a full stop. Titles of publications and vessels are italicised. Titles of articles, collections and databases appear within single quotation marks.
For a fuller explanation of how to use the template, with many examples of citations of frequently used New Zealand and English sources, consult or download the eight-page Simple Guide with examples.
How do you include citations in your writing?
Most word-processing programs will format endnotes for you automatically. Insert a superscript endnote marker in Arabic numerals(1, 2, 3, etc.) at the point in your text where you have introduced the fact or quote you want to support, and type or paste the citation you have devised into the endnote field that appears. When published, the endnotes will appear as a list of numbered citations at the conclusion of your work. In The New Zealand Genealogist, these would appear under the heading 'Notes'.
If you need to cite the same source several times, give the full citation in the first instance and a shortened version for subsequent citations, as in the examples in the Simple Guide.
You can also provide a list of any more general references used for background to your writing but not cited specifically. These will be included after your endnotes.
For more help ...
Some genealogy database programs for personal computers, such as Family Tree Maker and Legacy, include source-citation writers that enable you to build citations in a standard format while you are entering information you have found about your family. As it is very easy to copy and paste these citations into endnotes when writing, it is worth putting some effort into learning how to use this aspect of your genealogy software.
Many libraries (including the NZSG Library) provides a selection of citation formats for each publication title, but you will need to choose which format to use.
Some websites, like Ancestry, Trove, FamilySearch and Papers Past, even do the citation work for us. However, do note:
- For subscription websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past, cite the 'root' URL, e.g., www.ancestry.com, not the full locator which is shown in the address bar when you are looking at your source, as this is usually lengthy and specific to the search you just made. Also it is only temporary, and inaccessible to anyone without a subscription.
- Some websites, e.g., Papers Past, provide more enduring shortened hyperlinks, known as permalinks, which are suitable to use. They are an add-on, not a substitute for a full citation, as some researchers may need to consult the paper on microfilm or in hard copy.
- Including the date you accessed the information on any website you are referencing is important, as is including any original archives reference given, because material published under license will not necessarily be available there when you or your readers try to view it in the future.
But be aware!
Cherry-picking citations from a variety of sources has one big pitfall: while it seems easier, you are likely to end up with several different citation formats at the end of your article, when you are really aiming for some uniformity. ‘Cheat-sheets’ of templates and examples can help you overcome this problem, and guide you to create excellent citations in a consistent style, using the details from the citations you have cribbed.
Sources for Publication in The New Zealand Genealogist
The use of these guidelines is not a pre-requisite for publication. They are offered to encourage and support members who are aiming to improve the standard of the source citations for articles they submit for publication. Our editor is not looking for academic perfection, or slavish devotion to a specific style or system, but for accurate source information, with adequate detail, expressed in a consistent style.
Also have a look at our page on Writing Articles for The New Zealand Genealogist.
Cite your sources (source footnotes) FamilySearch Research Wiki. Includes a list of useful style guides for family historians.
DNA source citations by Robin Worthlin on her Family Locket blog. Includes a handy template for creating DNA citations.
How to cite sources by John Wylie. This author uses the Chicago Manual of Style, a favourite of genealogists, especially in the USA.
If you prefer a more academic way of referencing the NZSG have a Referencing Guide based on the University of Strathclyde's referencing system.