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Start the New Year Right – Cite Your Sources!

If you are among those of us who started our genealogical research journey by furiously jotting down notes and copying pages out of books without citing your sources, this is a great time to turn your life around. In the process, you might find your research becomes more productive.


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Citing your sources is an important habit everyone should adopt. No better time than the beginning of a new year!

I have long suspected the real reason researchers do not document sources is they do not really know how. Programs like Family Tree Maker provide a pop-up that makes a valiant attempt at helping genealogists through the process. If you are not already adept at citing sources, however, you are still likely to either give up or do a less than "correct" job of citations.

There is a "correct" way of citing sources. Citation styles were not created to torture you. They were invented so researchers have a standard format for citing sources that can be easily understood by other researchers. Of course, they are also handy for double-checking your own research.


Did you know there are a dozen citation styles? Technically, it does not really matter which one you use. What does matter is to use a style correctly and consistently.

The styles have names like APA style or MLA style. For genealogy, you will probably use either Chicago Style Manual or Modern Language Association (MLA) or Turabian Style. The only exception might be if you submit a family history for publication by a publishing house that has style requirements. If you are publishing your own family history, just pick a style and stick to it.

Genealogy software does its best to help you format your citations correctly. However, you still need to have to correct information to start with.

My favorite source for formatting citations is the simplest one to use, and it is free to anyone who has internet access. provides a "Cite This Item" link for every title. Click on the link, and you will see a pop-up window with the source already cited in a half dozen different formats. Copy the citation and you can paste it into just about any software there is.

Family Tree Maker, for example, has a citation formatting pop-up window. You can copy the entire citation and paste it into the "Footnote: (printed format)" window at the bottom of the citation screen. Since it will not be a Master Source, if you paste your citation this way, click at the end of the citation and add a comma followed by the page number.

RootsMagic is just the opposite: the citation screen appears at the top of the "Edit Source" pop-up window. Do not enter the page number as part of the citation, as suggested for Family Tree Maker. Once you have entered the citation one time, the entire citation automatically becomes a reusable source. Each time you reuse the source, a second window pops up. This "Edit Citation Details" window has a field for entering the page number where you found the information for this bit of information.

If you use other software, experiment with ways to use copy and paste from a source like It will make life easier and more precise for you.

Citation Wizardry

Using a wizard in any genealogical software to create a citation was obviously easy for the person who wrote the software. They are not sitting in the local genealogy library with you trying to figure out what information goes where. Even though the best help screens are only useful if you know how to interpret them.

The title is the "official" title of the source. Close does not count on this one. I'll show you how to identify this information, quickly and perfectly.

The author or originator may only seem obvious. Sometimes, the author was an editor who might not even be identified. Every book has either an author or an editor. Every book. This is the person, or group of people, who put together all those paragraphs or lists of tombstones. Even census returns have authors.

Publication facts are important. These facts include the name of the publisher. A reprint will bear a different name than the original edition. It will likely be printed in another city. It will almost certainly be published in a different year.

The edition may matter, as well. It certainly matters if it is a "revised" edition: that means there have been corrections or additions to the original copy. Book collectors gravitate toward first editions. Genealogical researchers probably want to focus on revised editions that might be different from earlier copies. It is important to cite which edition contains the information you are citing. If the information was not in an earlier edition, then your citation is not correct and will frustrate anyone trying to find your data in the original book.

The source location is a nice touch. It is mainly useful for you, unless you found a book that is the one and only copy in existence. It can help other researchers identify where a source might be found. Unfortunately, some smaller genealogical and historical societies sell off research tools that are seldom used. Do not count on that book being there the next time you or someone else wants to find it.

Before you start using any citation tool, you need to first determine what to cite. This is the step where most people put the book back on the reshelving cart and move on. This is where your New Year's Resolution to cite properly will begin.


Why does it really matter if the title is perfect? Because if someone else tries to find that book and take a look at it for themselves, they need to know exactly what it is called. Close does not count when it comes to books.

A good citation states the exact title of a book or other source. "Biography, Essex County, MA" is not a title. It could refer to "History of Essex County, Massachusetts with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men," a multi-volume set published by J. W. Lewis & Co. in 1888. Or, it could be Biographical review: this volume contains biographical sketches of leading citizens of Essex and Clinton Counties, New York, a mulit-volume set, published by Biographical Review Publishing Company in 1896.

That leads us to another matter. Citing the title is not enough. If there are multiple volumes, identify which volume you used as a source. Some sets use a single page numbering system for the entire set while most restart the page numbering sequence with each volume. Site the volume, along with the page number.

Identifying the title for self-published sources can sometimes be a challenge. Hopefully, the library where you used the source has a card catalog, either paper or electronic. Most of the time, they have an accurate citation for the title. In the case of smaller libraries and genealogical societies, that may not always be the case.

If I cannot find the source in the card catalog, or if there is not one, I search for the title. If I do not find the title there, try using Google Books. I have even found titles on book vendor sites on the internet. is one of the more likely places, since they sell a lot of family history and genealogy, including short-run publications. The titles are not always perfectly formatted, but their sellers are in the book business and are quite good at citations.

Other Paper

If you are citing a journal or a newspaper, include the volume and edition number and the column where the information was found. Each year is a separate volume even though volumes do not always begin in January and a complete volume does not necessarily run twelve months. It gets a bit confusing with some older papers.

As with multiple-volume editions of books, editors use their own discretion when it comes to page numbering newspapers and journals. Some editors actually number the first page of the first edition of a volume as page one and continuing numbering all the way through to the last edition of that volume. But that is rare.

As a result, Page 17 of Volume 12 could mean page 17 of any date the paper was published. It could be April 12 or November 27 or December 1. Always include both.

I tend to include the date as well as volume and edition. I have been researching a newspaper that was in business for three decades whose editor changed the volume and edition sequence – a couple of times. The only way I have been able to keep citations correct is to include the date, because he used the volume and edition number for more than one date.

When citing tiny things like death notices, include the column number in your citation. A death notice could be two lines in the middle of the fifth column, and very difficult to find on a crowded newspaper page.

Web Pages

Believe it or not, there is a correct way to cite web pages. As we all know, web pages come and go. A properly cited web page states what day the information was found online. It is not a guarantee it will ever be there again or that it has not changed. It does not mean it is gone, necessarily. It might simply have moved. We know we cannot rely on web pages being online and containing the same information for any longer than it takes to upload a revised page or rename a directory.

My favorite tool for figuring out how to cite a web page is actually Word 2007. There is a wonderful tool under the References tab that formats web site citations perfectly.

Go to the web page you want to cite. Keep it open until you finish creating the citation in Word 2007.

A biography of Harry B. Price is online at, from the Illinois State University (ISU) yearbook, back when ISU was the Illinois State Normal University. It's a useful piece of research partly because ISU discontinued yearbooks years ago. The yearbooks they do have were in the basement of Milner Library when they were experiencing severe water leaks in that area of the building.

To create the citation, click on the References tab (the fourth one from the left). The third panel from the left is "Citations & Bibliography." Click on "Insert Citation" to open the drop down menu. Choose "Add New Source."

This is a complicated looking screen. Do not panic. Click the "Type of Source" button to reveal the 17 different types of citation sources you can create with this tool. The seventh choice is "Web Page." If you know the author, include it. Most of the time you don't, so you can skip this field.

The "Name of Web Page" is what appears on browser window, at the very top. When I view with Internet Explorer, the title appears as "Shelby County Trails – Windows Internet Explorer." The "Name of Web Page" in this instance would be "Shelby County Trails." The browser is inessential.

The name of the web site may be different. For instance, if I found this information on Genealogy Trails, that would be the web site name.

There are fields for including the year, month, and date the information was created by the person creating the web page. This information is optional and often does not appear on a web page. It might very well appear in a bulletin board discussion, however. Eventually, those discussions may disappear.

There are fields for year, month and date accessed. This documents when you saw the information online. It might have been there for 10 seconds or ten years.

The last piece of information is the URL, the web page "address." Copy this from the address field at the top of the page. Include the "http" or "https."

This will create the citation for a web page and insert the source in your Word Document that looks like "(Edwards)" with the parentheses. Next click on References and choose "Bibliography." Choose "Insert Bibliography." It will be formatted for Word.

The source, completely formatted, will appear as follows:


Edwards, J. R. (n.d.). Shelby County Trail. Retrieved December 24, 2008, from Genealogy Trails:

Click inside the Bibliography notation, and carefully highly just the source information. Do not include the word "Bibliography." Copy the source text. Now you can paste it into any software you choose. The formatted web page citation will look like this

Edwards, J. R. (n.d.). Shelby County Trail. Retrieved December 24, 2008, from Genealogy Trails:

Does It Really Matter?

Citing sources does matter. If a date from one source varies from a date you recorded from another source, how do you determine which one is correct?

The first step is to make sure you recorded the information correctly in the first place. Go back to your sources.

Revisiting sources at a later time can also help expand your research. It might not have occurred to you five years ago that information about your great-grandfather on your mother's side was in the same book where you found information about your great-grandfather on your father's side – because you did not realize they were next-door neighbors for three years. Now, you suddenly need to know exactly what book you found the original data in and which volume.

Isn't There a Less Technical Way?

Citing sources does not require a computer. You can find stylebooks in any library or bookstore.

The process of citing sources is the same. It just goes a lot faster when you let the computer help.


Electronic files never truly disappear. The Wayback Machine is a handy tool for finding a web resource that no longer appears to be available. Type or paste any URL into the search field and the Wayback Machine will go searching for what used to be.

Additional Sources:

  • Gibaldi, Joseph. 2008. MLA style manual and guide to scholarly publishing. New York: Modern Language Association of America.

  • The Chicago manual of style. 2003. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Turabian, Kate L. 2007. A manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations: Chicago style for students and researchers. Chicago guides to writing, editing, and publishing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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