Source Citations in Professional Reports (National Institute)

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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 ($).

Citing Your Sources

A citation accompanies each source mentioned in your report. The underlying principle is to tell your reader and yourself where you found that piece of information. It is placed right there with the name or heading of the source on your reported search list as well as on (the front of) any document copies. Besides showing us the source location and description, citations also have the effect of advising us about what type they are (original or derivative) and thus their reliability and context for evaluation purposes.

NB: If you have also prepared a formatted genealogy or family history for the client, in word processing or software, or when you are writing articles, the citations then become footnotes.

More than ever, genealogists and family historians are striving to “do it right” and meet professional expectations. We highly recommend Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills. Some of you may consult the widely-valued Chicago Manual of Style or other university or academic citation guides—some are available now on the Internet. There is nothing “wrong” with these manuals except that genealogy leads us into source material not normally used by historians and academic research. We look to Mills because her guide deals with so many sources which are necessary and perhaps unique to genealogy. As a few examples, think of vital record registrations, family bibles, funeral cards, loose papers in courthouse files, oral interviews and the entire, vast spectrum of Internet information.

Elizabeth Shown Mills' Guides

In fact, the burgeoning interest in “doing it right” and the ever-increasing examples have prompted Mills to create Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. She has also created several QuickSheets specially geared to citation of online sources and analysis. The QuickSheets currently available (2011) are:

  • Citing Online Historical Resources
  • Citing Ancestry.com Databases and Images
  • Genealogical Problem Analysis: A Strategic Plan
  • Evidence Analysis: A Research Process Map

Mills’ books and Quicksheets are available from GenealogyStore.com.

Ideas about Guides

However, many of you are still uncertain about how an adequate citation is formed. We want to stress that:

  • all guides are only guides
  • developing personal consistency through common sense is very important
  • no one format fits all sources—different sources may require variations
  • guidelines stated by repositories may not adequately meet genealogy specifications
  • practice, practice, practice makes you comfortable with a format

Citation Elements

A source citation must contain sufficient elements for identification and retrieval of the precise item. Two major components to remember:

  • the name and identification of the overall source (what it is)
  • a description sufficient to the specific context for retrieval (where to find it)

Using a CENSUS as an example (these examples are wholly or partially fictional):

We cite the name of the census and the relevant year:

1901 Canada census

We further describe it as pertaining to our specific information within/from that source:

1901 Canada census, Ontario, district 73, Huron East, sub-district F, Turnberry Township, division 3, page 4.

We can add or remove detail (e.g. name of household head, household number, line number) as circumstance and common sense dictate. Some like to begin the citation with the specific name of the household or family head; others feel the page number is sufficient to find the names. When enumeration schedules in addition to the personal or population schedule exist for a place (such as deaths in the past 12 months, manufacturing and industry, agricultural, etc) you may need that line or household number to access information in the other schedules.

John Smith household, 1901 Canada census, Ontario, district 73, Huron East, sub-district F, Turnberry Township, division 3, page 4, line 15; Library and Archives Canada microfilm T-6543.

Does your intended reader know from the text of your report that the census citations are all U.S. or British or Canadian? Then you might consider omitting the country name. Obviously if you cite the census of more than one country in a report or article, you must be more exact. This is a more streamlined version:

1901 census Ontario, Huron East, Turnberry Township, division 3, page 4, John Smith household; Library and  Archives Canada microfilm T-6543.

On the whole, the above examples demonstrate the “large to small” preference. In other words, the citation moves from general to specific description. That means beginning with the broadest name of the source, going into sub-series or archival description, then into more exact volume-page or document number, perhaps ending with the specific surname or individual. The reverse, from specific to general is also valid. The sequence depends on whether emphasis is wanted on the person/family in question or the geographic nature of the source. In many citations, there can be a mixture of ingredients.

Microform references (and their locations if need be) are separated from the citation note with a semi-colon. This is a good habit. Citations should reflect whether we viewed an original document, a microfilm copy or an online digitized version. Family History Library (FHL) microfilm numbers should cite that institution when you’ve used their film. Their film numbers are different from the film numbers of sources which were created by non-FHL agencies. In the following example, the Archives of Ontario is the custodian of the particular records and has its own designated microfilm numbers (which would be MS 929 reel 28). However, the user in this case viewed the FHL film:

John Smith birth registration no. 006533 (1877), Archives of Ontario, RG 80-2, Office of the Registrar General; microfilm 1845211, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

  • Citations can be affected by many variables. The same type of record (such as census) in different jurisdictions or countries will not likely be catalogued by their creators or custodians in identical formats. This reinforces the necessity of your being logical and consistent in your work. The intended recipient, the amount of space available, and a host of other factors may also come into play.
  • Major archives may have citation style suggestions for their own collections. Genealogists do not always conform to their recommendations, which often emphasize their own internal organizing system. For instance, RG (Record Group) or MG (Manuscript Group) or MSS (Manuscript Series) numbers are a component of many archival cataloguing systems. Those numbers often are not necessary for retrieval of popular and heavily used material that has been microfilmed. However, in these cases, you will decide if such references are indispensable. Consider the similarity with library cataloguing. When you cite a book, the author, title, publisher and year of publication are standard, acceptable information for retrieval by an interested party. Normally we do not cite the Library of Congress catalogue number, or the Dewey system, or whichever call number is associated with it.
  • A citation does not contain the information itself which you are employing as part of your report analysis and conclusions. That information belongs in the text and body of your report (or family history, or article, as the case may be). In other words, the citation for the John Smith household does not include the names, ages, occupations, marital status, etc of the individuals.

Other Reference Guides

Turabian Quick Guide

A Pocket Guide to Writing in History by Mary Lynn Rampolla (St Martin’s Press, 2004).

Reports for Law Firms

This is merely a “heads up” about the importance of clear instructions if you are hired by a lawyer/attorney for research on kinship matters. It’s worth mentioning here that they may expect a slightly different reporting format. For example, many prefer that attached copies and documents be labelled as “Exhibits.”

When it’s necessary to take their case work to court, they have their own style of presenting arguments and evidence. Legal standards of evidence can vary from one jurisdiction to another, or perhaps owing to the nature of the litigation. Lawyers can assign their own level of evidence to the exhibits you provide. Your report (the “findings” is a term they often use) may be only one element in the overall case. It should detail the facts you found, with appropriate source notes, and not necessarily attempt to reach any legal conclusions. After you report, the attorney will tell you if further evidence and exhibits are needed.

The work you do for them may take the form of a deposition or affidavit. Genealogists experienced at working for law firms suggest that you either study some depositions in previous cases at your local courthouse, or request from your contractor an example of how s/he wants your report to appear.


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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 wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.