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Citing Sources

William S. Moag Gravestone, photo taken by Donna Moughty, 4 Oct 1997, Loughaghery Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Annahilt, Down, Ireland.

Last week I began my series on Strategies for Finding Your Irish Ancestors with a discussion of the Genealogical Proof Standard and it's first rule, "A reasonably exhaustive search." It's not enough to find one record, but we need to search for all of the records our ancestors left. Today, the second rule, "Complete and accurate citations to all the sources."

I can hear the groans...I'm only doing this for my family so I don't need to worry about all that. YES, you do! If you ask a professional genealogist what advice they wish they had been given at the beginning, nine out of ten will say, “cite your sources.”  All of us (if we ever get a chance to work on our own families again) will tell you that we have information in our databases from our newbie days and have no idea where the information came from.  And here’s something you can take to the WILL find conflicting information, whether it is online, in books or in original sources (my father-in-law’s surname is spelled wrong on his birth certificate).  If you don’t know the source of the information, how can you evaluate it?  Was it original or derivative?  Was the information primary or secondary? If you’re not familiar with these terms, I’ll discuss them in a future post on Evidence Analysis.

    When I realized that sources were important, I purchased a copy of Richard Lackey’s Cite  Your Sources: A Manual for Documenting Family Histories and Genealogical Records.  Published in 1985, it was considered THE resource.  Then came Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian in 1997.  This compact 124 page book is the book no genealogist or family historian should be without.  Elizabeth often says that citation is an art, not a science, but this book will set you on the right course when citing sources.  When you find information, make sure you know were it came from: the title, author, editor or compiler, the publisher, volume, page, the repository…whatever information you need to make sure you can find it again.  Since so much of what we use today is online, add the website, URL and the original source, but remember that URLs come and go.  Two of the most popular online databases, and give you the source information, including the original source, which you can copy into your database. (By having the original source, you can track the information even if the website disappears.)

Source Citation Information,, "Registration of Marriages", Archives of Ontario.

  Most genealogy software has templates to help you format the information, and some like RootsMagic, base their source templates on Elizabeth’s books.  Honestly, I wouldn’t be so concerned about where the commas and semi-colons go, just capture the information…you can always put the information into your notes field and format it later.  When I’m adding things to my online Tree, I frequently copy the source into the description field.

   Two of the main purposes for source citations are so other researchers can find your source and review it, and so you can evaluate information that may conflict.  Let’s say you finally find the date of birth for your pesky ancestor in an online tree and the source given in the tree is a vital record.  The source in your database must be the Family Tree (citing the owner of the tree and its location) until you personally obtain a copy of the original record.  If you have not seen the original, you can not cite it; you only cite what you have reviewed.  Each piece of information in your genealogical database (name, date, event, location, family story, etc.) should have a source citation, maybe even multiple citations (you might find a date in one record and a location in another record).  I sometimes have five or more citations for a single piece of information which may or may not agree.  When I resolve the conflicting information I will add a note or proof summary stating which source I feel is correct and the reason which will stand unless (or until) new information comes to light.  Remember from last week, rule one of the Genealogical Proof Standard is a "reasonably exhaustive search!"

I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent here, but I also want to mention attribution. If you copy a photograph, a page from a family bible, or any information from someone's family tree or website, you need to acknowledge it and provide attribution. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also the law. It's called copyright! Most genealogists will share, but you need to ask. I recently found a picture identified as my great grandfather at I wasn't sure who had posted it, so I used the contact capability and asked. It turned out to be a cousin I know and I asked permission to download and use the photo (which she granted).

"David and William," photograph in the possession of Carrie Farley in 2019, no other identifying information. She believes it to be David and William Moag. Used with permission.

Another example of the lack of attribution is the photo at the top of this post. Anyone who has researched the family of William Moag will likely have seen the picture I took in 1997. It has been copied into multiple family trees, in most cases without any attribution. The interesting point is that the gravestone is no longer was destroyed in 2000 in a storm.


    Elizabeth Shown Mills has also published three editions (2007, 2009 and 2015) of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace.  This book is a whopping 892 pages and close to three pounds (but the good news is that is also available for Kindle).  It is a superb book, but may be overkill if you’re starting out.  Your library should have a copy if you need to refer to it.


    Elizabeth has also published “Quick Sheets,” four page laminated sheets which are simple reference guides.  I’ve listed below the information on each of these resources which can be purchased online or off.

    So, take the advice of this genealogist and start off on the right foot.  Whether you are using genealogical software, an online tree or just a word processor, Cite Your Sources.

    Happy Hunting!


Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1997.

_______. Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2017.

______. QuickSheet: Citing Online Historical Resources Evidence Style, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2017. 

______. QuickSheet: Citing® Databases & Images, 2nd Edition, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2017.

______, Your Stripped-bare Guide to Citing Sources (Quicksheet), Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2015.

______. QuickSheet: Citing Genetic Sources for History Research: Evidence Style, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2015.

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Jan 26, 2019

Yes - Ian Macdonald says much the same thing. He gives you what he refers to as "belts and braces" using which you can cite pretty much any source. Because the majority of my sources are from England/Scotland/Ireland, I find his examples to be especially helpful. His work and EE are very complimentary :)


Unknown member
Jan 25, 2019

Thanks for the alternative reference. As Elizabeth Shown Mills recently says, citing is more of an art then a science. I checked out Referencing for Genealogists on Amazon . The author is a professor at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. There was also a comment there about a free site at the University to check out. I've shortened it...


Jan 25, 2019

Great advice. I would also recommend Ian Macdonald's Referencing for Genealogists, published in 2018. It has great advice and employs a slightly different method. Using both this book and Evidence Explained, I've developed my own unique citation format that suits me perfectly. And that makes citation far less of a chore :)


Deb Thalner
Deb Thalner
Jan 15, 2019

So true! I wish I had a time machine. It’s even worse having to go back and both find then document past sources!

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