Archive for the ‘Research Skills’ Category

… but we do need Evidence Explained.

[Please read “Why we don’t always need source citation templates …” before reading this post.]

Elizabeth Shown Mills’s 1997 book Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997) contains about 84 total pages of text, not including the Acknowledgment, Introduction, Bibliography, Appendixes, and Index. Of these 84 pages, 25 are contained in the chapter “Fundamentals of citation,” 19 are contained in the chapter “Fundamentals of analysis,” and 40 are contained in the section of “Citation Formats,” which contains templates for over 100 genealogical sources.

The first edition of Evidence Explained (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007) contains 804 pages, not including the introduction and indexes. Of these 804 pages, 26 pages are contained in the first chapter, “Fundamentals of Evidence Analysis,” and 52 pages are contained in the second chapter, “Fundamentals of Citation.” The remaining chapters are individually identified by broad resource types.

It is important to note that each chapter does indeed contain “QuickCheck Models” (citation templates) but there is no section of this book that is explicitly called “Citation Formats,” or anything of the like. It is also important to note that this book is named Evidence Explained, not Citations Explained.

When this book was first released in 2007, I lugged the 800-plus book on the train every day for a month and read it cover-to-cover, much as I did years before with Evidence! It never occurred to me at the time that other genealogists might consider this book a mere collection of citation templates. I have since become aware that this is exactly how many view the book.

To prove that it is not a mere guide to citations or a collection of templates, let’s look at a sample chapter. I chose Chapter 8, “Local & State Records: Courts & Governance,” at random.

  • The chapter runs from page 371 through page 418.
  • Pages 373-382: QuickCheck Models (10 pages).
  • Pages 383-385: Basic Issues. This section contains such important information about records analysis as the following passage: “Many of the ‘original’ court records you consult at the city and county level are record copies (see 1.27) rather than true originals. Historically, attorneys presented the court with documents critical to the case at hand—contracts, depositions, petitions, etc. Courts then maintained these loose documents in bundles, envelopes, jackets, or packets. Certain items of particular significance from a legal standpoint would be copied into record books, although the original packets would usually be preserved, at least for a certain number of years.” [8.5, page 385] Note that this is just one short example, and that it does not at all concern citation. These three pages contain only five short example citations, demonstrating other issues being discussed.
  • Pages 385-390: Citation Issues. This section discusses specific notes about citing these records. There are several examples in this section, again used to demonstrate the issues being discussed. These notes are insightful, not only for the specific examples being discussed, but for other record groups as well. Take this gem, for example: “Many counties and some cities are no longer functioning jurisdictions or else they have changed their names. Even so, the basic citation pattern remains the same. You would likely add a brief comment to your First Reference Note to explain the situation.” [8.12, page 388]
  • Pages 390-409: City & County Records. This section contains detailed descriptions and summaries of several record groups, as well as citation examples. It includes background information and basic formats for bound volumes, loose case files, and off-site archival records. The record groups discussed include bastardy cases (presentments), bonds [“Historically, bonds have been posted in a variety of matters. In addition to the better-known administration, guardian, and marriage bonds, bonds also guaranteed appearance in court, peaceful conduct toward others, payment of legal obligations, fulfillment of duty as a public officer, financial support for slaves being freed, and much more.” (8.22, page 396)], coroner’s inquests, county commissioners’ records, election certificates and returns, indigent records, insanity hearings, etc. This section provides not only an education in how to cite various city and county records, with examples that demonstrate variations, but also an education in many lesser-known and lesser-used record groups. It also contains other important tips, like, “The ‘source of the source’ cited by databases such as this one could refer to the original numbering scheme of the court that created the record or it could refer to a new number assigned by the archive that created the database.” This is an important distinction to make when analyzing records not only when citing them.
  • Pages 409-418: Colony & State Records. This section contains information about state archival inventories/finding aids, as well as general agencies and record groups: colony-wide courts, state or provincial appellate cases, governors’ papers, legislative petitions, and state pension files. Among the information that does not consist of citation templates, one will find the following passage: “When a case is appealed from a local court to a district, state, provincial, or federal court, the file generated at the local level is transmitted to the higher court, where it is assigned a new docket number or case number. The case name may also be reversed. For example, a case might originate locally as John Brown v. Sam Smith. If the case was decided in favor of Brown, then Smith appealed, the name of the new case before the appellate court would be Sam Smith v. John Brown. Your citation to the appellate case should carry the label and the case number used in the appellate court, not the label and number of the original case at the local level.” (8.39, pages 413-414)

While the 45 pages in this chapter do contain quite a few citation examples, they include only 10 pages of citation templates. Taken individually, there are 223 citation examples in this chapter. However, this quantity counts each individual citation separately, where the same record may be provided in source list entry, first reference note, and short reference note examples, and counted as three separate citations. The actual number of individual record examples cited within the chapter is less than 100.

The citation examples demonstrate variations in how any individual source might have to be cited. But neither the examples nor the templates will cover every single source that one will encounter. There will be major variations even within one record group, depending on whether you are accessing the record at the courthouse or an archives, a microfilmed or digital image copy, an original file or a record copy; depending on how the archives has organized their record groups; depending on whether the record refers to an earlier case or a separate file; and many other factors. While Evidence Explained does indeed address all of these factors, they are not always noted within the section devoted to the record group that you are looking for specifically.

The bulk of Evidence Explained, in fact, does not consist solely of a discussion of citation issues, as the above brief exploration shows. It certainly contains far more than simply citation templates. Those who have not read anything more than the first two chapters, and the citation models and examples, are missing out on the true value of this book.

And of course, as my previous commenter noted, and there are many out there who seem to agree with him, “I can assure you, I will never read it.” If the book were an 800-pound collection of source citation templates, I would agree with you. There would be nothing to read.

In my opinion, Evidence Explained is a much greater work concerned as much with principles of evidence analysis as with source citation. These two aspects of research cannot be separated, though this is a lesson that many still have yet to learn.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “… but we do need Evidence Explained.,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 23 Sep 2011 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

Why we don’t always need source citation templates …

A commenter on my previous post, “Why citation software should be avoided,” noted,

Citations are easy, or should be. Simply provide a key at the beginning of how your citations are organized, then include who,what, when, where, and where found. That should be sufficient for anyone to find it and verify it, if possible. Why do we need an 800+ page book for that?

To a certain extent, I completely agree with this statement.

For me, probably based on my experience using and citing many different record groups for close to 40-60 hours a week for a few years now,  citation is easy or “should be.” When I look at Evidence Explained (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007), it makes sense to me. I look at specific examples only because I cannot remember a small detail concerning that particular record group. But about 97% of the source citations that I write are written without the use of a template.

Ultimately, source citations provide exactly the information my commenter noted: “who,what, when, where, and where found.” And of course, the necessary key to the organization of the citation.

This is precisely the point that I wanted to make with my earlier posts, “Source Citations: Getting it ‘Right,'” parts one, two, three, and four. In these posts, I explain the logic behind why several of the more common citations are organized the way they are.

Take a look at the accepted citation for a book, in reference note format:

Michael Hait, Online State Resources for Genealogy, Version 1.0, e-book (Harrington, Del.: Hait Family History Research Publications, 2011), page 37.

This citation provides all of the necessary details to locate this reference.

Now, look at an example from Evidence Explained selected at random:

Midmar Parish (Aberdeenshire, Scotland), Old Parish Registers, OPR 222/1, p. 65, James Edward baptism (1727); FHL microfilm 993,344, item 1. [Evidence Explained, 1st ed., p. 366]

This citation provides the creator (Midmar Parish), the record (Old Parish Registers), the specific volume and page, followed by “where found” (the FHL microfilm).

Here is another example for a completely different record group, again selected at random:

Passenger list, El Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, 1779; Papeles Procedentes de Cuba, edición 141, legajo 689, folio 414; Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain; consulted as microfilm PPC roll 68, Clayton Library, Houston. [Evidence Explained, 1st ed., p. 640]

This one is a little different, but ultimately the same. The first element cited is not the creator, but a specific record contained within a larger record set. Like an article in a journal or a chapter in a book. But otherwise the citation contains the same elements in the same order.

So do we really need an 800-page book of source citation templates?

Not if we “get it.” At least, not on every single citation. You may need to use the templates from time to time to figure out some idiosyncracy of a specific record.

But … (please read on in the next post) … but we need Evidence Explained.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Why we don’t always need source citation templates …,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 23 Sep 2011 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

Why citation software should be avoided

Carol Fisher Saller is a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press and an editor of the Chicago Manual of Style. Ms. Saller also contributes to a new collaborative blog with several writers and university professors of English and linguistics entitled Lingua Franca, hosted by the website The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In a recent blog post, “Citation Software, or How to Make a Perfect Mess,” Ms. Saller describes the problems inherent to the use of citation software like EndNote, RefWorks, and Zotero:

Browsing the tutorials at YouTube, you can quickly perceive the power and usefulness of citation software applications like EndNote, RefWorks, and Zotero, which promise to format footnotes and bibliographies with the click of a mouse. But all three of the videos I viewed at random showed even practiced tutors hitting potholes—for instance, here (“Oh, no—I don’t like to have this title—I want to have the short form”) and here (“It looks like this reference isn’t correct … but let’s just pretend it’s right”) and here (“Go back to your Word file, and OK, let’s go look for it … OK, it didn’t come over … what you’re gonna need to do is … ”).

Ms. Saller confirms what I have asserted in other blog posts, like “Source Citations: Why Form Matters,” parts one, two, three, and four. “[A]ll I ask is that a style be reasonable and consistent,” she writes. She continues to note the problems with the citation software:

But instead, thanks to the use of citation software, I frequently encounter the use of notes style in the bibliography and vice versa, all perfectly and disastrously consistent. The result for the reader is confusion and inconvenience.

No one can deny that we are living in a digital world ruled by the slogan, “There’s an app for that!” But when creating source citations, we don’t need a software that can do it for us. Ms. Saller begins her post by stating,

Preparing notes and bibliographies in a consistent style has long been one of the less glamorous tasks of academic writing. And now, with the increasing use—or rather misuse—of citation software, it is surely one of the most rapidly degenerating.

Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007), wrote,

Citation is an art, not a science. As budding artists, we learn the principles —from color and form to shape and texture. Once we have mastered the basics, we are free to improvise. Through that improvisation, we capture the uniqueness of each subject or setting. As historians, we use words to paint our interpretations of past societies and their surviving records. In order to portray those records, we learn certain principles of citation—principles that broadly apply to various types of historical materials. Yet records and artifacts are like all else in the universe: each can be unique in its own way. Therefore, once we have learned the principles of citation, we have both an artistic license and a researcher’s responsibility to adapt those principles to fit materials that do not match any standard model. [p. 41]

It is precisely this nature of citations as art rather than science that we must cling to as researchers. So many researchers that I know use Evidence Explained solely for its templates, but have not taken the time to learn the principles behind these templates. Once you understand basic citation principles, you no longer find yourself running to the index of the 800-plus-page tome to figure out how to cite this record or that.

Source citation software cannot learn the art. It can use a template, and create a standard citation from a standard work. There is not a single app in existence that could create the Mona Lisa. There are many that can reproduce the painting from a template, but none that can capture the essence of the subject.


Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007.

Saller, Carol Fisher. “Citation Software, or How to Make a Perfect Mess.” Lingua Franca blog. Posted 12 September 2011. : 2011.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Why citation software should be avoided,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 21 Sep 2011 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

My first encounter with indirect evidence

Professional genealogist Claudia Breland, in her blog post “In Which I First Encounter Indirect Evidence,”[1] describes the discovery of her great-grandmother’s parents using the marriage record of her great-grandmother’s brother. Claudia’s example perfectly illustrates one of the most common forms of indirect evidence.

It got me thinking. What was my first encounter with indirect evidence?

Back in 1997, when I was just 20 years old, I discovered the Rootsweb mailing lists. I promptly began to send out queries for my surnames. One of these was a Smith family in Suffolk County, New York (Long Island). I corresponded with a few fellow researchers, but the brickwall on this line was a man named Jesse Smith who lived in Coram, in the Town of Brookhaven, Suffolk County.

On one summer evening in 1998 I received an email that sounded promising, from a researcher on Long Island named Ned Smith:

Barbara [surname withheld] forwarded to me a copy of her email re Jesse Smith of Coram, since she knows that another researcher and I are working to sort out all the Smiths of early Suffolk County, Long Island[.]

We do not have evidence on his ancestry unfortunately. An earlier researcher, Dr. Frederick K. Smith (fl 1930s) who studied many of the Smith families in Suffolk, conjectured that Jesse may have been the son of James Smith of Coram (b. say 1910) but he was just making a guess and had no evidence that we know of.[2]

Throughout the next several months, Ned and I wrote back and forth. I shared what little information I had on the family–mostly consisting of information of his children and his wife. And he in turn provided me with a lot of information from local Suffolk County historical societies and genealogy collections in public libraries. Much of this was previous research conducted in the 1930s and 1950s, of course all of it undocumented.

Finally, on the day after Christmas 1998, I received another email from Mr. Smith:

I got a little present from Lady Luck a few days before Christmas-the first real clue I have ever seen re Jesse Smith’s ancestry. It is not proof, just an indication. But, as I said, it is the first I have come across. If it is reliable it looks as if Frederick K. Smith’s conjecture was right; that Jesse was another son of James Smith of Coram ….

Last Wednesday I was at the County Clerk’s Record Room, basically just killing time until the County Historical Society opened. For lack of anything better to do I started browsing through what are called Deeds in Partition- where someone has asked the courts to fairly divide up lands held in common by two or more people, if they cannot agree amongst themselves. One section was in regard to dividing up the estate of Elisha Hammond, Sr. of Coram. Among his landholdings was one described as being “part of the eastern half of Lot 45… purchased by Elisha Hammond Sr. from Jesse and James Smith, by deed bearing date of March 1787”. That deed is not among those recorded at the County Clerk’s, and I have not seen it in any collection of unrecorded deeds. The brief mention in this partition suit may be the only surviving trace of it.

Its significance lies in the implication that Jesse and James Smith were joint owners of land. The most likely reason would be that they were brothers who had jointly inherited. A son would not normally be a joint owner with his father- either he would not get the land until his father’s death, or his father would deed it to him outright. Thus I do not believe the James cited would have been Jesse’s eldest son James (furthermore that James was probably still a minor in 1787 and not executing deeds). It is most likely the co-grantor was James Smith, Jr., of Coram, and if Jesse was a brother, then his father must have been James Smith, Sr., just as Frederick K. Smith conjectured.[3]

Though this was not enough evidence on which to base a reliable conclusion, it was my first contact with what would be termed indirect evidence. No relationships are stated in this deed of partition, but its reference to an earlier deed that may no longer exist definitely serves as indirect evidence of a relationship between Jesse and James Smith.

The light bulb went off over my head when I read this email. I did not yet know that this was called “indirect evidence,” but I knew that it was evidence. I knew that it did not explicitly state the relationship that it implied. And recognizing this changed the way that I searched for evidence from then forward.

What was your first encounter with indirect evidence? I would love to read about these “light bulb” moments from other bloggers. If you write about it, please leave a link to your blog post in the comments below. Or feel free to tell your tale in the comments, if you do not have your own blog.


[1] Claudia Breland, “In Which I First Encounter Indirect Evidence,” Genealogy and Life blog, posted 11 Sep 2011 ( : accessed 11 Sep 2011).

[2] Ned Smith, St. James, New York [(E-ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE),] to Michael Hait, e-mail, 29 July 1998, “Jesse Smith of Coram,” privately held by Hait, [(E-ADDRESS), & STREET ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE], Harrington, Delaware, 2011.

[3] Ned Smith, St. James, New York [(E-ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE),] to Michael Hait, e-mail, 26 December 1998, “Jesse Smith,” privately held by Hait, [(E-ADDRESS), & STREET ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE], Harrington, Delaware, 2011.

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, CG, “My first encounter with indirect evidence,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 19 Sep 2011 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

The 5 Most Misused Words and Phrases in Genealogy

Over the past quarter century, the field of genealogy has developed its own vocabulary to describe the evolving standards. Unfortunately, some of these terms are used in other fields with slightly different meanings. Here, in no particular order, are the top five most misused words and phrases in modern genealogy.

1. “Research”:

Especially to beginning genealogists, the term “research” is equivalent to “looking for records.” The more experience one gains, the more one becomes aware of how little of the research process is actually involved in physically looking for records. Far more research is conducted after a document has been located. Research also includes

  • learning more about the record itself–its creation, background, and purpose;
  • identifying the information the record holds;
  • determining how this information applies to our research problem;
  • assessing the reliability of the information;
  • correlating the information with that held in other records previously located;
  • and deducing what clues in the record point to potential sources for more information.

In all, I would estimate that about 20% of all research is actually conducted in the physical search for records. The remaining 80% involves the forming of conclusions based on the information turned up in that physical search.

2. “Primary” and “Secondary”:

You will often hear researchers in other fields refer to primary and secondary documents or records. In genealogy, we differentiate between original records and derivative records. These terms generally correspond with what other fields call primary (original) and secondary (derivative). Since many of us learned these terms in these other fields (or even in genealogy years ago, before the current definitions evolved), it is common to hear genealogists refer to “primary” and “secondary” records.

In current usage, reliable eyewitness testimony is considered primary, while information provided by someone who was not a witness or participant is considered secondary. Experienced genealogists, who always strive to review the original record rather than a derivative source, understand that any single record can contain information of different natures. A death certificate might provide both birth and death information, for example. In most cases, while the information about the death may be primary, the birth information is secondary. This is why we discuss primary and secondary information, as opposed to primary and secondary documents.

3. “Evidence”:

The term “evidence” refers to how we apply information to our research problem. There are two kinds of evidence, as defined in modern genealogy: direct and indirect.

Direct evidence refers to information that directly answers our research question. For example, if our research question asks, “when was John born?,” then a record containing the information, explicitly stated, that John was born on 4 July 1826, would be considered as containing direct evidence.

Indirect evidence refers to information that is relevant to our question but does not directly answer it. For example, using the same question about John’s birth, we examine a series of annual tax lists. John does not appear on any tax list until 1847. We then review the tax laws of that time period, and discover that men were required to pay taxes beginning at the age of 21. The tax records do not explicitly state John’s date of birth, but we can infer that he was at least 21 years of age at this time. This appearance on the tax lists therefore constitutes indirect evidence of his date of birth.

The term “evidence” is not synonymous with either the terms “information” or “proof,” but this is how it is most often used by many genealogists. Information is held by records. Evidence is how we apply this information to our research problem. And proof is …

4. “Proof”:

We often hear from other genealogists that a certain record proves a certain fact. This is a common misunderstanding of the concept of “proof.” No record contains proof. Records contain information.

As genealogists, we identify, evaluate, and correlate the information in these records, through which process we discern each piece of information’s individual value as evidence. Eventually, we hope to reach a soundly reasoned conclusion. “Proof” refers to the documented summary of the evidence that leads to our conclusion.

The Genealogical Proof Standard, itself an often-misunderstood concept, is the measure by which we judge our proof arguments. In its most common phrasing, the Standard contains five parts: conduct a reasonably exhaustive (or extensive) search for all relevant records, completely and accurately cite all sources used, correlate and evaluate all evidence, reconcile all contradictory evidence, and form a soundly reasoned, written conclusion. The extent to which each of these parts is demonstrated and documented in the written proof argument helps to determine the probable reliability of the conclusions.

Because it is most often phrased as five “parts,” many researchers begin to think of the Genealogical Proof Standard as a five-step process: first we do a search, then cite, then correlate, etc. On the contrary, in the course of our research, these “steps” are rarely completed in order. While searching for relevant records, we must cite and evaluate each individual record as we find it. Certainly, one begins by searching for relevant records and ends with the written conclusion, but the rest of the Standard is an ongoing process. How we define relevant itself evolves with each new record located.

As we begin to form conclusions, we should honestly assess our research against the Genealogical Proof Standard to determine whether or not our conclusion is warranted by our research.

5. “Report”:

This is a dangerously misused and misunderstood term for aspiring professional genealogists. Unfortunately, the misunderstanding stems most often from genealogical software programs, which are using the same term in a different context.

When one inputs one’s information and conclusions in a genealogy database program, it is common (and recommended) practice to periodically print out this information. In all database software, the output of data into a readable format based on specific parameters is called a report. Genealogy software most often includes the ability to print this data out into a rudimentary compiled genealogy in either NGSQ or Register formats, or compiled pedigree in Sosa-Stradonitz format. These are called, by the database, “reports.”

The research report provided by a professional genealogist–and even those reports one writes for one’s personal research files–are generally not in the form of a compiled genealogy or pedigree. A compiled genealogy or pedigree may be part of the research report, but not necessarily. In my reports, genealogies or pedigrees are most often used as a system of organization or summary of conclusions rather than the body of the report itself.

A professional research report, in general terms, is a detailed, documented report of the research conducted. This would include discussions of all of the processes described above under “Research,” as well as the formation of proof arguments and full conclusions. It also includes all negative searches conducted, that is, those indexes, databases, and record groups searched where no relevant results were located. All of these would be contained in the body of a report.

Professional genealogist’s research reports also contain other sections: a reiteration of the stated goals (both long-term and short-term, if applicable), a summary of all information provided or known at the beginning of the research, a brief summary of the conclusions reached within the report usually located before the main body, and suggestions for further research.

In other words, a research report simply does not resemble the reports printed by database software. The two terms are not synonymous at all–and given the very different contexts of their usage, should not be misunderstood to be so.

These are the words and phrases I see and hear misused most often by other genealogists. What are some other terms that are commonly misused?

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “The 5 Most Misused Words and Phrases in Genealogy,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 19 Aug 2011 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

Five things you have to know about every record

Records are the foundation of our research. That much is indisputable. One of the most valuable lessons learned in genealogy, however, is that finding a record is only the first step of research. So much more research occurs after we locate any single record. We must thoroughly and completely analyze and evaluate that record, to identify the information it holds, assess the quality of the information, and apply this information to our research question.

For every record we find, there are five things that we must investigate:

1. Why was the record created?

By this I mean the whole record set out of which your record of interest was extracted. (Not, for example, that a death certificate was created because the person died.)

If you are looking at a government record, what law or set of laws required its creation? The law could potentially reveal qualifications that provide indirect evidence about the subject of the record. Here are a few examples:

  • Your ancestor appears on a tax list. The tax law at that time required a poll tax of all males over the age of 21 years. This provides indirect evidence that your ancestor was 21 years of age.
  • Your immigrant ancestor purchased federal land under the Homestead Act. The law stated that only citizens were eligible. This provides indirect evidence that your ancestor was a naturalized citizen.
  • Your ancestor inherited money from a previously unidentified person. The probate law specifically identifies who qualifies as an heir to intestate estates. This provides indirect evidence of the possible relationship between your ancestor and this other person.
  • Your ancestor applied for a pension for military service. The pension laws defined who was eligible for a pension. This provides indirect evidence that your ancestor met these qualifications (whether they concerned injury, service, or age).

Even non-government records are created for a reason. For church records, have you investigated the specifics of the sacraments of your ancestor’s religion. There are differences, for example, between the baptismal rites of a Roman Catholic and a Primitive Baptist. At what age was First Communion or Confirmation? What qualified someone to be a godfather or sponsor?

2. Who created the record?

Specifically, what agency or official?

Is this an official death certificate created by the Health Department? Is it a register copy of a deed, created by the Clerk of the county court?

Who was the enumerator of that census? I recently researched a family where the wife was the enumerator. Even if you are not that lucky, you can still determine whether the enumerator had a relationship with your ancestor.

Was this a form that was filled out by a clerk or one that was filled out by the informant? (And furthermore, was the informant even literate or did someone else have to fill it out for him anyway? Remember, signing her name does not necessarily mean that she could write anything else.)

Is that tombstone the original, 200 year old marker, or was it placed there 40 years ago by the Daughters of the American Revolution?

What were the political leanings of the newspaper that ran that obituary or news article?

All of these can affect the reliability of the record.

3. Who provided the information?

Some records, such as death certificates, explicitly identify the informant. Others, such as deeds, do not specifically identify the informant, but he can be reasonably assumed. Still other times, the informants will remain a complete mystery.

But how much do you know about the informant? What was his relationship to your subject?

More importantly, what was his knowledge of the information being reported? Was the informant a knowledgable, willing participant? Or did the informant only hear about the event from another? This does not necessarily mean that the information is less reliable. In some cases, a “secondary” informant may have a better memory of the events than someone directly involved.

While I know that none of us want to believe that our ancestors could have lied, we do also have to consider this possibility? Was there an underlying bias on the part of the informant, or any other reason that the informant would have provided inaccurate information? Pension records, for example, cannot always be considered reliable sources for age. When a person’s age was closely tied to their financial interests, that person may tend to exaggerate their age by a year or two. This is what we identify as bias.

4. How did you get the record?

That is, how did the record travel from the desk of its creator to your desk?

Most county government records are either still in the same courthouse where they were created or have been transferred from that courthouse directly to the county or state archives. Many church records are still in the same church where they were originally created. No problems here.

When you find records at the local or state historical society library or a university library, can you identify the donor? How did the donor obtain the record? You will want to back-track the possession of the record, where possible, to the creator. In many cases, the record stayed in the family’s possession, so it is important to investigate the family relationships.

During this analysis, you will of course also note that the deed book in the county courthouse was microfilmed by the Family History Library, and that this microfilm was abstracted by an author into the book that you read, if that was the case.

This analysis of its provenance can not only be useful for identifying the originator of a record, but also for emphasizing weaknesses in your own research. Your goal should always be to obtain a record as close to the desk of its creator as possible.

5. What are the alternatives?

Events in the lives of our ancestors often created more than a single record. You can’t rest your conclusions on the statements in a single record. Instead, compile a list of alternative sources for the same information, either direct or indirect.

For a death certificate, for example, look for a church burial register, the tombstone (and other records at the cemetery), records of the funeral home, probate records (both testate and intestate), a newspaper obituary, the federal census mortality schedule, and any other records that may have been created.

For a marriage certificate, consider the marriage license, the minister’s return, a church marriage record, a newspaper account, and a widow’s pension application file (if applicable). Don’t forget incidental sources of the same information as well. Like the 1900 U. S. federal census, which reported the number of years each couple was married.

You should perform these same assessments on every record you find. Some of them, for common record groups, will not have to be completely repeated for every individual record. Just keep a file with the information for these common record groups,  and review the information when you find a new record. Be sure to note when there are discrepancies or special exceptions to the rules.

All of these should be done even before you examine the information that the record holds. It will provide new context and insight into the information you read.

Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part four

I thought that I was finished with this series. But somehow, the concept of standardized source citations remains a bone of contention. To read the earlier posts in this series, use the following links for part one, part two, and part three.

This past Sunday, 17 July 2011, James Tanner posted “Looking towards a rational philosophy of citations,” in his Genealogy’s Star blog. In this post, Mr. Tanner describes a “broad spectrum of attitudes towards citations,” with one end being the casual researcher who is completely uninterested in the whole source citation issue, and the other end being the “super-professionals, journal editors, former or present academics” who cites everything in a “formal ‘acceptable’ manner.” Mr. Tanner identifies himself as being “firmly at the academic end of the spectrum.” Nonetheless, he concludes his post with the following passage,

So where does that leave us in the genealogical community. Here are some observations and suggestions:

1. We should be fully committed to the idea of citing sources. Most (all?) of the popular genealogical database programs have adequate to very good citation provisions. There is no real excuse for not having a citation to a source if you are using one of the newer programs. However, even PAF has an adequate source citation method.

2. When we write, speak or teach, we should always include a commercial announcement about citing your sources.

3. We should try hard to consistently cite sources in our own materials.

4. We should be charitable about others’ lack of source citations and remember that not everyone even knows that citations exist.

5. When we see a citation that is poorly written, contrary to our own version of a citation or otherwise bad, we simply ignore it and go on with our lives.

6. If we are in a position of deciding on the format and/or content of citations for a publication, online post or wiki or whatever, we try to be as liberal and inclusive as possible without undermining the integrity of the publication.

7. Let’s try not to argue too much about colons, commas, spacing and capitalization.

It is difficult for me to discern which of these are intended as observations, and which are intended as suggestions. As I read them, they appear to be a set of “best practices” regarding source citations.

I can absolutely agree with the first suggestion. We should all be committed to source citations. I would also add that we should be committed to educating others about source citations. However, the second suggestion is a little much, in my opinion. We do not need to have a “commercial announcement” about citing sources in every presentation or article. In these situations, we can teach by example. By properly citing all of our own sources in every instance, we can indirectly teach others to do the same.

Unfortunately, the remaining suggestions fall far short of what is intended by the Genealogical Proof Standard, in my eyes.

Regarding number three, it is not enough to “try hard” to consistently cite sources. We must do it. Furthermore, I have the sneaking suspicion that “consistent” as intended in this context does not refer to a consistent format, but only to a consistent presence.

As to number four, I agree that we should be charitable about others’ lack of citations. This is doubtless to ignorance about the importance of source citations, and we have all been there at some point in our careers. However, “charitable” stems from the word “charity,” that is, “giving.” We should use these opportunities to give these others a solid education about why source citations are important.

The fifth suggestion, in my opinion, is irresponsible. If we ignore others’ mistakes, without alerting them to the presence of these mistakes, then the mistake becomes perpetuated. This other genealogist, the author of “bad” source citations, may teach someone else to construct “bad” citations. However, if we show them how to create “good” and sufficient citations, then they can teach someone else to do the same.

Again, the sixth suggestion is irresponsible. Editors should not try to be as inclusive as possible. In no other academic field are editors inclusive. Take the time to look at the writers’ guidelines for academic journals in any discipline, whether a social science like history or a harder science like physics. Editors are extremely particular about the format of every aspect of an article, especially the source citations. If the editors of genealogical publications continue to be “liberal” and “inclusive,” those genealogists who have dedicated their lives to attaining the same level of respect given to other academic pursuits will continue to be lumped in together with those casual genealogists who “do” genealogy by clicking on shaking leaves, with no regard to citing sources.

And finally, we come to the last suggestion. The point is not to argue about punctuation.

When we were in elementary school and learning to read and write, our teacher taught us how to construct a sentence. We learned about the parts of speech, punctuation, capitalization, etc. To ignore this as an adult is unacceptable. We are expected in all segments of our life to follow these rules.

Source citation is the same. We do not live in those dark days 100 years ago when very few source citations appeared, and the few that did were not constructed in a consistent manner. Even if we did not have Evidence! or Evidence Explained, we still have the Chicago Manual of Style, which was used to create those EE citation styles. There are accepted standards of source citation.

Why do we use Evidence Explained, or even Chicago, as opposed to MLA or APA? What is the difference? Isn’t one as good as the next? Quite frankly, no. Let’s take a look at these styles, in the words of their creators:

  • Modern Language Association (MLA): “All fields of research agree on the need to document scholarly borrowings, but documentation conventions vary because of the different needs of scholarly disciplines. MLA style for documentation is widely used in the humanities, especially in writing on language and literature. Generally simpler and more concise than other styles, MLA style features brief parenthetical citations in the text keyed to an alphabetical list of works cited that appears at the end of the work.”[1]
  • American Psychological Association (APA): “The best scientific writing is spare and straightforward. It spotlights the ideas being presented, not the manner of presentation. Manuscript structure, word choice, punctuation, graphics, and references are all chosen to move the idea forward with a minimum of distraction and a maximum of precision.”[2] “Among the most helpful general guides to editorial style are Words into Type (Skillin & Gay, 1974) and the Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2005).”[3] So even the APA recommends the Chicago Manual of Style.
  • Chicago Manual of Style:  According to a wonderful article by Yale University, that I will address separately, “Chicago style is especially popular in historical research. When developing a historical explanation from multiple primary sources, using footnotes instead of inserting parenthetical information allows the reader to focus on the evidence instead of being distracted by the publication information about that evidence.”[4] For an example of just how widespread this style is for historical research work, consider the following, from the writers’ guidelines of the Journal of American History, published by the Organization of American Historians: “All text, including quotations and footnotes, should be prepared in double-spaced typescript according to The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press).”[5]

So why do we, as genealogists, use Evidence Explained and The Chicago Manual of Style?

Well, first of all, MLA is designed to primarily cite published work, especially for literary criticism and the language arts. We as genealogists are taught specifically not to rely on published work, but to review and cite the original record. So MLA Style is clearly insufficient for our needs.

APA Style is designed for scientific research, especially psychological and other behavioral sciences. They even refer their own readers to the Chicago Manual of Style, when the simplified APA Style does not address a specific issue! Again, this clearly does not fit our citation needs.

The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, is the most popular style guide for postgraduate research, especially historical research. Unlike the other two styles, CMOS does provide citation styles for original records. This is what we need as genealogists. Unfortunately, the citation needs, in terms of the level of detail, of historians are much less specific than the needs of genealogists. This is why Elizabeth Shown Mills spent years compiling Evidence Explained: so that we could cite a specific original record (or multiple records) as our source(s) for the specific biographical details that we discover in the course of our research.

No other style does it better.

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part four,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 21 Jul 2011 ( : accessed [access date]).


[1] “What Is MLA Style?,” Modern Language Association ( : accessed 20 July 2011).

[2] American Psychological Association, “About APA Style,” APA Style ( : accessed 20 July 2011).

[3] American Psychological Association, “Why is there a specific APA Style?,” APA Style ( : accessed 20 July 2011).

[4] “Why Are There Different Citation Styles?,” Yale College Writing Center ( : accessed 20 July 2011).

[5] “Article Submission Guidelines,” Journal of American History ( : accessed 20 July 2011).

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