Citing Online Sources
Citing online sources is easier than you might think. In this class you will learn how to cite online sources generally. You’ll learn particular examples from FamilySearch.org and from Ancestry.com.
Citations exist to satisfy two needs. A citation should allow you to locate the source and to judge the quality of the source. You need to be able to find and check sources. Conclusion may look suspicious. (“Was my grandfather really born one month after his parents married?”). Or you may have reached a different conclusion. (“My sources indicate 1821, not 1820.”) You need to be able to judge the correctness of a genealogy by looking at the quality of the sources used.
In forward looking disciplines like science and medicine it is easy to meet these two needs. It is easy to locate cited sources because the sources are journals. The quality of the source is easily determined by looking at the author’s name and the publication date. Is the author a well known expert, qualified to address the subject? Was the journal published recently?
Genealogists face unique needs in satisfying the two purposes of citations.
Genealogists find original sources in dusty courthouses, numerous archives, scattered graveyards, and in well worn church registers. Finding these sources in the first place was far from easy and explaining to someone else how to find them can be more difficult. Citation style guides from other disciplines provide little guidance in what information should be included for the large variation of manuscript, unpublished sources used by genealogists.
Unlike experts in forward looking disciplines, the “experts” on the birth of your great-great-grandfather are not universally recognized. And they are dead. If the location or quality of the source requires it, add a short explanation.
Because genealogical sources are difficult to examine in person, many have been transcribed, microfilmed, or digitized. These copies are called derivative sources. Because the quality of a derivative depends heavily on the quality of the original and the type of derivative, the citation needs two parts: a citation of the derivative, including its type, and a citation to the original. We sometimes call the original “the source of the source.”
To address these unique needs, Elizabeth Shown Mills published Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Since American historians use The Chicago Manual of Style, Elizabeth Shown Mills builds on it. Because Evidence Explained meets their unique needs, many genealogists use it.
Citing online sources adds additional challenges. The World Wide Web is like a great desert covered in shifting sand. Hills and valleys move with the wind. Trees, rocks, and other landmarks come and go. Oases form and evaporate. Trails disappear. The web even has intentional mirages that suddenly appear and then are gone. Citations must account for these possibilities to the extent possible.
Database and Images
When a historical record collection can be searched, the derivative type is “database,” “index,” or similar term. When a collection has digital images, “digital images” is the type of the derivative. Consider this citation to the death certificate of former president, Lyndon Baines Johnson:
- 1. “Texas Deaths, 1890-1976,” database and digital images, FamilySearch.org (http://www.familysearch.org : accessed 5 December 2009), search for Lyndon Baines Johnson, died 22 January 1973; death certificate 00340, Bexar County, Texas Bureau of Vital Statistics, Department of Health, 1100 West 49th Street, Austin, Texas.
Notice the different parts of the citation:
- The name of the collection is in quotes, like a chapter title.
- There are two types of derivative sources in this collection: “database and digital images.” In judging the quality of a derivative source, digital images are better than databases and indexes.
- The title of the website, like the title of a book, is in italics.
- Instead of a city, the website home page is the place of publication. Leave a space before the colon to avoid confusion.
- No publisher is required. In place of the publication year, specify the day you accessed the page.
- In place of a page number, explain how to find the page. In this example, the instructions are “search for Lyndon Baines Johnson, died 22 January 1973.”
- A semicolon separates the citation to the derivative source from the citation to the source of the source. Usually, you will quote the source specified on the website. If you know the steps to find the original, use them as the source of the source. This hypothetical example (you can’t really browse original Texas death certificates) indicates that the certificate is filed by number, 00340, in the certificates for Bexar County, kept by the Texas Bureau of Vital Statistics, stored at the Department of Health in Austin, Texas.
Keep the changing nature of the web in mind as you create citations to online sources. Because web addresses change, it is better to cite the home page plus finding instructions. Changes to FamilySearch.org are a case in point. During the past several years Johnson’s death certificate has had four different addresses on FamilySearch.org:
The citation above is immune to these changes. It was applicable on the pilot site. It was applicable on the beta site. It is applicable on the current site. And it will work if changes occur in the future. Why? Because you could find the death certificate on any of these websites starting from the home page and searching for “Lyndon Baines Johnson” with a death year of 1973.
Database without Images
The source of the source is even more important for databases without images. When a database does not have images, you cannot tell if there are indexing errors. The source of the source citation in the following example tells you where to get a photocopy of the original record.
- 2. “Idaho Marriages, 1842-1996,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 July 2010), search for Alonzo Raymond, married 1922; from “Upper Snake River Family History Center and Ricks College (Rexburg, Idaho),” citing “marriage book at the County Courthouse located in Bannock Co., ID in Volume 11 on Page 55.”
Unlike the Texas Death example, this source of the source shows the typical practice. Simply “specify whatever the database gives as its source.”
Entering Citations in nFS
At the present time , the new FamilySearch Tree makes it very difficult to enter sources. Here are some suggestions from users that may help until source entry is improved. I suggest doing what works for you. “Remember that the purpose of source citations is not to create paranoia or anxiety but to eliminate it.”
- Make use of the browser’s drop down list of past entries.
- Copy and paste frequent sources from a separate document.
- Enter sources for the individual rather than for each event.
- Enter limited information.
- Enter citations into the notes so you can format as desired and synchronize with desktop genealogy data.
The illustration below shows my method: place the entire citation into the Comments box. While I’ve duplicated some information in other boxes, strictly speaking this is not necessary.
[Insert illustration here]
To communicate the quality of a source, a citation needs to specify the source of the source. Sometimes it may be necessary to add a comment. Cite online sources as you would a book. Citations must account for the constantly changing nature of the web. FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, and similar websites publish collections or databases that should be handled like chapters in a book. If a website makes it impossible to add a good source-of-the-source, reuse the citations provided by the website.
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, PDF image (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007), 10, 43.
- Mills, Evidence Explained, 87, 142, 209, 272, 388, 407, 470, 633.
- Mills, Evidence Explained, 47-8, 52.
- “The OAH Magazine of History Style Sheet,” Organization of American Historians (http://www.oah.org : accessed 17 July 2010); Diana Hacker, “History: Documenting Sources,” Research and Documentation Online (http://dianahacker.com : accessed 17 July 2010).
- See The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 597; hereinafter cited as CMOS. Genealogists may wish to use Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 162. The title page of the 7th edition explains that it is “Chicago Style for Students and Researchers.”
- CMOS, 661-2 and Turabian, 177-9.
- Mills, Evidence Explained, 301.
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997), 14.
- Kathy Grant, “Entering Sources in nFS -- Tips and Improvements,” FHCNET, Yahoo discussion group, ( : 5 June 2010, 8:17 pm, accessed 18 July 18, 2010).
- Gary Templeman, FHCNET (6 June 2010, 2:57 am); Venita Roylance, Ibid. (6 June 2010, 5:36 pm).
- Gaylon Findlay, FHCNET (6 June 2010, 8:23 pm).