A few months ago I received an e-mail from a cousin asking for information on our common ancestral line. This line of my family is one that I hadn’t worked on for many years. I opened the family database and began to review what I would send her. It was obvious from the beginning that I had some work to do before I could send anything to my cousin. I had not documented many of the sources used in my research. It’s been over 15 years since I started citing my sources for everything but in the first 10 years of researching my sources are sketchy. It was a shock to realize that I didn’t know where I had obtained much of the information on that family. This meant that I had to repeat many hours of research.
If you’ve ever inherited genealogy information from a relative that did not document his sources, you know how frustrating it can be. My friend Jane has some beautiful charts from her great-uncle that go back many generations. There is not one clue as to where the great-uncle got his information. He could have obtained this information from reliable sources such as wills and deeds. But, he also could have gotten it from great-grandma when she was in the throes of dementia. The point is, Jane doesn’t know where he got the information. She will have to go back and spend time repeating great-uncle’s research instead of going on to new research. Unfortunately, this is a common mistake made by genealogist.
I know that many genealogist think that citing sources is too time consuming and not really necessary because they don't have plans to publish their work. Relying on memory is not a good idea. The elation from even the biggest discovery will fade with time. Most people research their genealogy for themselves or their children. By citing sources, you are doing yourself a big favor.
Identify a source for every piece of data you have. This includes names, dates, places and any other statement of fact, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. What is found today might not become meaningful for years. Even secondary sources such as a family story or items found on the Internet should be recorded until a better source is found.
Leave a trail that someone else could follow. There are some reference books like Citations! By Elizabeth Shown Mills that can help with citation formats. If these books seem too rigid, answer these questions when writing a citation: who, what, where, when, and how. You may need to use that source again down the road. If you have made a good citation, it will be easy to find the source again. Also, when you share your information, a good citation will prevent those you share your information with from redoing your research.
How you got the information is just as significant as the information itself. It’s important to know if the source you recorded was obtained from original records or an index. Additionally, it makes a difference if you looked at the index book at the Denver Public Library or the small library in your Kansas hometown.
Using citations gives validity to your information. This is true even if you are the only one who sees your material. Many people work on genealogy "off and on" as time allows. If you record a good citation, you can more easily pick up where you left off. Ultimately, time will be saved.
Start citing sources now! If you are a beginner, this is one mistake you can avoid. If you have been researching for a while, take the time to go back and cite. It doesn’t matter if the source is your personal knowledge, a book, an original document or a conversation with Aunt Martha. Cite it!
It takes time to write citations. No argument there. But it's time well spent. And, as my mother used to say "If you’re gonna do something, you might as well do it right." Citation Guides: