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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Research Skills: Citing Your Sources (Citations)

Your research will not bear credibility unless you can properly cite the sources for your family documents and information. Citations are also known as source notes or reference notes. In this instance we are addressing the “note” type of citation (bibliographies require a slightly different format).

The underlying principles for citing your sources:

  • To tell your family or your reader (or yourself) how to find a specific source of information—a document, a book, an Internet site, or other material.
  • Equally important, the source you cite informs the reader about its relative value or quality regarding the genealogical statement you are making.

Sources exist in a variety of formats and some are more trustworthy than others in recording a historical fact. For example, if we cite a death certificate for an ancestor’s date of death, we tend to trust that source more than a verbal memory, handed down in the family, about the same event. The death certificate tells the reader that we made the effort to obtain the most original source possible.

If we cite only a census return to calculate a person’s year of birth, the reader understands that the source is imprecise and possibly unreliable. Other sources could bolster the census information about a birth year, but a birth or baptismal record would be much more specific and timely. This is not to say that an ideal source exists for each piece of information we want. But it is why the Genealogical Proof Standard urges a reasonably exhaustive search for many sources with regard to one genealogical fact.

As family historians we have to deal with a diversity of sources almost unmatched in other fields of study—government records, family papers, books, court documents, oral interviews, religious repositories, cemetery stones, bibles, photographs, and the multitude of Internet sources. While some large archives have a preferred academic style for citation of their own materials, it does not always satisfy the needs of genealogy or family history. You are referred to Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace as the defining guide that does satisfy our needs. From the widely acknowledged academic guide Chicago Manual of Style, Mills goes well beyond to accommodate our needs. Her chapters on “Fundamentals of Evidence” and “Fundamentals of Citation” are outstanding, emphasizing the correlation between the two. Hundreds of models are shown for source notes, with fully comprehensible explanations for order and sequence. Mills’ Evidence! Citations and Analysis for the Family Historian is an earlier, more succinct, portable version.

We should be recording citations on our research notes, document photocopies, family charts, our research logs, client reports, family histories, and articles written for journals or magazines. Software for word processing and genealogy programs usually have footnote or note-type capabilities. Some of them may need adjustment to conform to acceptable usage.

Citations should clearly distinguish the type of source that was consulted. If you plucked a reference from a published index or an online database, it’s not the same as viewing the original source from which the information derives. If you view a digital image of a document, you cite the digital image, not the form of the original document.

When and where you viewed a record or source may not always be germane to retrieving it again. In citing a book, you do not include the local library where you saw it—that information does not benefit someone reading your note. Books are usually widely available at or through repositories in the English-speaking world. On the other hand, if you are citing a more ephemeral source, you may well have reason to cite where the source was when you found or saw it. Examples are Internet sites and other sources which can change or disappear without warning. Family papers, correspondence, bibles and taped / recorded interviews would need reference to their last known owner.

We are giving you some guidelines and simple examples based on Mills’ work, but we stress that there is some room for flexibility as long as you understand a basic model and the reasoning behind it. To make this as painless as possible, we look at elements and structure. We want to include the description which places it into context (what exactly are you looking at?) and the location of the referenced material (how did you, or how will someone else, find that source?). The elements listed below will not necessarily be in the same order for each and every type of source.

Core Elements for Original Sources

  • name of ancestor / subject person
  • jurisdiction of source (country or county)
  • name / title of overall record group or collection
  • further reference details and numbers for file, volume, register, book, page, as applicable
  • form of access when applicable (microfilm, CD-ROM, digital image, etc.) name / location of the record’s holding institution

Core Elements for Derivative Sources

  • name of author or compiler
  • title of book or article (or chapter if applicable, followed by book title)
  • place of publication
  • name of publisher
  • date of publication

Core Elements for Online Sources

  • name of compiler / author of the item viewed, if available
  • the name / title of the item / page / section on a website
  • the type of item (database, image, chart, article, etc.)
  • name / title of website creator / owner
  • name / title of website, in italics (it is a type of publication)
  • URL of the website
  • the date the information was accessed

Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.