Prove It!

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Not long after I began my family history pursuit, I found a copy of a genealogy completed by a now-deceased relative in the 1970s. At first glance it seemed like a genealogical treasure trove which would save countless hours work on my part. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. This well-meaning relative completely ignored a fundamental rule of sound genealogical research: cite your sources! Instead of providing a much-welcomed “short cut,” this genealogy turned into a decades-long research project as I continue to seek verification of his (sometimes wildly incorrect) information.

Without proper documentation of sources, a genealogy is nothing but someone’s conjecture on what might be true. I certainly appreciate my relative’s hard work and dedication which provided a good starting point for my own work. At the same time, if I knew and could verify his sources, I wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Once the genealogy bug bites, most of us spend countless hours shaking our family tree in search of ripe fruit. Let’s make sure we pass on something useful to future generations.

As I tell my college students, proper citation of sources allows those who follow in your wake to pick up your research trail. The same holds true in genealogical research. The entire concept of proper citation of sources comes down to nothing more than providing a way to ensure that researchers following you can know the source of your information. Following commonly accepted standards for citations is best, but if you at least provide the needed information in some complete way, shape, or form, is far better than completely ignoring this critical aspect of genealogical research.

Different sources have different conventions as far as citing those sources. However, in general all citations contain the same general information: what it is, who created it, when it was created, where it’s located, and when did you access it. Remember, a complete citation should provide a trail someone can follow from your work back to the original source. The standard reference work for citing genealogical sources is Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifact to Cyberspace, Second Edition by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Company, 2012). Other useful works in include Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997) and Cite Your Sources: A Manual for Documenting Family Histories and Genealogical Records by Richard S. Lackey (University Press of Mississippi, 1980). The recently published Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones (National Genealogical Society, 2013) also contains an excellent section on proper citation of genealogical records.

Let’s learn from my relative’s omission. Let’s make it a point to properly cite our sources so that our work proves beneficial to others years from now by not making them “reinvent the wheel.”

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