A Cite For Sore Eyes -
Quality Citations for Electronic Genealogy Sources

A version of this article first appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of Ancestry Magazine

By Mark Howells

Why We Cite

As the detectives of our family histories, we have accepted a responsibility in our research which goes beyond merely finding our ancestors. Besides the finding, there is the recording of what we have found out about our forefathers. It is within the recording portion of our efforts that we have a serious responsibility. That is to provide quality citations for the sources in which we find information about our ancestors.

As family historians, we accept this responsibility for two main reasons. The first is purely for our own benefit. A properly written source citation for a piece of genealogical information helps us remember where we originally found it. This can save us from performing redundant research in a source which we've already consulted. Source citations can also assist us in considering additional avenues of research when we've turned up something new.

We don't just cite our sources for ourselves. The second reason for citing our sources properly is for the benefit of others. The family history which we create should include source citations so that others interested in our genealogical information can judge the accuracy of our research for themselves. The future researchers of our genealogy - that one grandchild, niece, or 4th cousin once remove who shares our passion for the hobby - will need to know "how you know" that Aunt Edith was really born during the 1932 World's Series. Besides our posterity, contemporary researchers with whom we share our information have the same need to verify the facts which we have gathered and organized. If we share the results of our research, others must be able to judge the craftsmanship of our efforts by the quality of our source citations.

Citing Electronic Sources in Genealogy

One problem which we face in getting our source citations right is the new cornucopia of electronic sources from which we can obtain information. World Wide Web sites, Internet mailing lists, databases on CD-ROMs, and electronic mail (e-mail) messages are a few of the more common sources of electronic genealogical information from which we now research. With these new sources comes the dilemma of how to correctly write a citation for each type. Many of us learned how to write citations for sources long before the advent of CD-ROMs or the Internet and have struggled with what to do about citing the new media. Fortunately, help has arrived.

Elizabeth Shown Mills, long time editor of the National Genealogical Society's NGS Quarterly, has authored a book titled Evidence! - Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (reviewed in the January/February '98 issue of Ancestry, page 11). This book was a much needed addition to the literature of proper genealogical documentation. It includes a very readable discussion of the fundamentals of both citation and analysis of genealogical source material. The book concludes with extensive examples of source citations for genealogical source materials of all types and media.

While noting that agreement on the "proper" method for citing the new electronic sources has not yet solidified, Mills recognizes the need we have as active family historians to make quality source citations now even in the face of uncertainty regarding their correct format. She has come to our rescue in providing citation examples for the new electronic sources including electronic mail, web pages, CD-ROMs, and mailing lists. The remainder of this article will discuss the formats for these four common types of sources. The examples given come directly from Evidence! They are Mills' examples of primary citations for endnotes or footnotes. The book also provides formats for subsequent citations and for bibliographic entries for the same sources which are not reproduced here.

Web Pages

Web page publishing has been a great boon to the family historian. Information is now quickly and easily obtainable from thousands of miles away at the touch of a button. However, information from web pages provide two challenges. First, the location of the web site, its URL or address, must be specified for the citation to be of value. Without this information, anyone reading your citation would be severely challenged to find the exact resource on the Internet which you used. A problem arises in how to format a web page address within a citation. Throughout Evidence!, Web page addresses are shown surrounded by angle brackets ( < and > ). These brackets are not part of the web page addresses themselves. This usage may be confusing to those who do not know to omit the angle brackets when entering the address into a web browser.

The second challenge stems from the impermanence of web pages. Changes to a web page can be uploaded in a matter of minutes so what you viewed on a particular web page today may be changed by tomorrow. Because of this, it is critical to note the date on which you viewed the web page to obtain the information cited. Mills suggests including this date at the end of the citation. The "Minshew data" referred to in the below example is the surname which was searched for on the Texas State Library's online index to Confederate Pension Records.

Index to Texas Confederate Pension Records, Archives Division, Texas State Library, online <http://link.tsl.state.tx.us/c/compt.html>, Minshew data downloaded 16 November 1996.

(Note that the URL quoted above has since been changed to http://link.tsl.state.tx.us/c/compt/index.html).

Electronic Mail

E-mail has extended the reach of every genealogist who uses the Internet. As fellow online researchers whom we will never meet provide us with useful genealogical information, we are obliged to cite their messages as source material. This is particularly true of the interesting tidbits of family history such as stories and reminiscences shared by other family members. Since people frequently change e-mail addresses, Elizabeth Shown Mills warns us to obtain and include a postal address with the citation to ensure that the contact can be repeatable in the event of an e-mail address change. Again, the angle brackets used by Mills to surround the e-mail address are not part of the actual e-mail address and may cause confusion.

Christopher Nordmann, "Rochon Baptisms of Mobile: Translated Abstracts," email message from <104274.1313@compuserve.com> (2767A Mary Avenue; St. Louis, MO 63144-2725) to author, 12 January 1997.

Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are the electronic mail equivalent of radio broadcasting. A single message sent to an electronic mailing list is "re-broadcast" out to all of the individuals who are subscribed to that mailing list. There are now thousands of free genealogy-related mailing lists available. Mailing lists are often generically referred to as "listserves" after the LISTSERV(r) mailing list software from L-Soft International. This is similar to referring to a photocopier by the brand name Xerox(r). Evidence! reminds us that it is important to cite both the e-mail address of the person who posted the message being cited and the e-mail address of the mailing list itself.

In the example below, Mills includes the date on which the message cited was printed out. This printout date is not really necessary. Once a message is sent to a mailing list, the author of the message does not have the ability to change the message copies which were sent to other mailing list subscribers. Therefore the date required for the citation of a mailing list message is the date which it was sent to the mailing list by its author - its creation date.

Daphne Gentry (Library of Virginia, Richmond), unidentified "report" quoted at length by Jon Kukla, in "Virginia Personal Property Tax Records as a Research Source," , listserve message to IEAHCNET list , 18 November 1996. Printout dated 22 November 1996.


Evidence! notes that there are really two types of CD-ROMs used by family historians. The first type are those produced from original records. The second type are those produced from prior publications. The majority of CD-ROM databases available in the market today are of the second type, so CD-ROMs produced from prior publications will be considered here. Observe the detail required in the citation below to correctly identify the source of the original information which is actually several times removed from the CD-ROM being cited.

Nicholas Shown entry, FamilyFinder database, Family Tree Maker, CD-ROM (Fremont, California: Banner Blue Software, 1994), citing Archive CD-153 (Orem, Utah: Automated Archives, no date). This data set is based on the census-index series complied by Ronald V. Jackson et al. (Salt Lake City [and elsewhere]; Accelerated Indexing Systems, 1970s-1980s).

Citations in the Electronic Age While the media from which we cite our sources is evolving, the reasons why we cite them for our genealogical research are unchanged. Citations act as a reminder to the researcher of what we've researched and how to find it again as well as providing other researchers with the ability to evaluate the accuracy of our research. Citations still perform the function of identifying the author of a piece of source information, the source type, the date of the source's "publication", and the additional information required to locate that source. Evidence! reminds us that the sources may have changed but the purpose and content required of quality citations remain constant.

For Further Reading

A copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills Evidence! should grace the bookshelf of every serious family historian. In one compact book, the author has brought together both the principles and examples of correct genealogical source citations. Evidence! may be obtained through online ordering from Amazon.com, by mail from the publisher - Genealogical Publishing Company, or by telephone at 1-800-296-6687.

This article has only considered four electronic examples out of the dozens and dozens of traditional and electronic source citation formats provided by Mills. Other citation formats for electronic sources such as the Ancestral File(tm) on CD-ROM are also provided in Evidence! but are not reproduced here.

In the book's bibliography, several World Wide Web sites for citation guidance are provided for our increasingly electronic world. The web sites provided in the book's bibliography and additional web sites on electronic citations may be found by visiting Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet - Citing Sources.

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A Cite For Sore Eyes - Quality Citations for Electronic Genealogy Sources
Created & maintained by Mark Howells.
For information about this article, please send email to markhow@oz.net
Updated June 10, 2000

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