Genealogy: Tips for documenting your sources

By Barry J. Ewell

Do it right the first time! Whether the source is a newspaper, journal, court record, personal interview, letter or church record, write everything down while you still have the source in your hands.

The following are a few of the lessons I’ve learned about the value of documenting your sources:

Sources you can rely on. No one has a perfect memory, and some sources will have worse memories than others. The only source you can rely on is an “official” one: birth, marriage, death documents and other confirmable databases and indices. Even if information came from a relative, list the person’s name. You want to stay as accurate as possible and leave a clear trail for others to follow. Not only will you know you have proof of your information, but others you share the information with will know it is factual, not just speculation.

Sources establish credibility. Many genealogists pointed out that unless we are able to tell others where we obtain the information, all we are sharing is our opinion. Citing sources is essential to establishing credibility. If we have done a good job with our research, we can give others the ability to broaden and build upon the research already done and not have the same work rechecked over and over again.

Write legibly. If you handwrite any information, write legibly. It doesn’t pay to hurry and then not be able to read your own handwriting later. Where possible, I try to always get a photocopy or a photo of the key information I am capturing, and then enter it into my genealogical program or record database.

Checking sources allows for verification. Checking sources allows you to verify spelling and dating and to report variations. It also leads to more information. Relying on the expertise of others helps save time and energy. Create and maintain a record of what resource was checked, so that you don’t waste time later. Likewise, some sources (books, newspapers and so on) might be found at only a few locations. Include where these were found in case you need to glean them again.

How valuable is your time? Genealogists have told experiences where they tried to pick up the trail of research from undocumented records and spent weeks, months or even years searching for the next clue, only to find out that the data they had was incorrect.

Six elements of a good source citation. The six elements of a good source citation include author, title, publisher’s name and location, publication date, location of the source and identifying information (library or archive where you found the info and its call number) and specific information for the piece of data you found (page number, line number, and so on).

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