Copyright, plagiarism, and citing your sources

UPDATE 13 March 2014: Apparently the posts referenced (and linked) in the SlideShare presentation bleow have been removed. Though the offending party has started a new blog, it does not appear that the posts based on my content have also been migrated to the new site (yet). MH

The Code of Ethics of the Association of Professional Genealogists contains two similar statements:

[I therefore agree to:]

2. . . . fully and accurately cite references. . . .

4. . . . refrain from knowingly violating or encouraging others to violate laws and regulations concerning copyright. . . .[1]

At first glance these two issues seem to say more or less the same thing. “Cite your sources”—a refrain I have often repeated in this blog and elsewhere.

There are, however, two separate issues at play here: one of documentation, the other of attribution.

Documentation is ultimately a good research practice, but not necessarily an ethical issue. Is it unwise to jot down that birth date on your family group sheet without noting the death certificate making the claim? Of course it is. One will quickly regret not citing the sources for information. Is it unethical not to cite that death certificate? I’m not so sure that it is.

Violating copyright laws, on the other hand, is definitely unethical (and illegal). Plagiarizing someone else’s work is unethical. Quoting someone else’s work without attribution is unethical. Even copying large portions of someone else’s work with attribution is unethical. For those of us who make a living from our intellectual property, plagiarism and copyright violation quite literally constitute theft.

There simply is no legal or ethical way to copy someone else’s intellectual property. “Fair use” does not allow wholesale copying, despite what one might think–even with a citation of the source. Without attribution, any copying whatsoever  is unacceptable.

Copyright violation and plagiarism have been discussed quite a bit among genealogists lately. Rather than repeat all of the information, I will simply provide this list of recent articles on the subject, most by authors far more knowledgeable on the subject than myself. If you write content for a blog or website or society newsletter or anywhere else as part of your genealogical career, please take the time to educate yourself on this subject.

The following posts all involve recent cases alleging copyright:

Edited to add the following two additional links:


[1] “Code of Ethics,” Association of Professional Genealogists ( : accessed 6 July 2013).

Citing the 1940 U. S. Census digital images

You might notice that I have been relatively quiet about the 1940 census release. Nearly every aspect of accessing and indexing the 1940 U. S. Census–released yesterday, 2 April 2012–has been covered extensively.

Now that the images are available, no doubt genealogists around the United States (and probably at least a few other countries) are diving in and looking for their families. So what do you cite once you have found them?

Because images are not yet completely available for all states through every host (and the NARA host site is running particularly slow this morning), I will use the example of a family in Delaware, the only state currently (as of the time of this writing) available on both FamilySearch and For this example I am using the image on FamilySearch, but I will address citing the same record on other sites.

I am not personally researching this family, for either myself or any of my clients. I picked it at random from a family then living in the town where I now live. I did also pick this particular household because it lands on line 29, so the supplementary questions also apply.

First, here is the full citation (in Reference Note format):

1940 U. S. Census, Kent County, Delaware, population schedule, 6th Representative District, Harrington City, enumeration district (ED) 1-23, page 247 (stamped), sheet 4A, dwelling 88, G. B. Colman household; digital images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 2 April 2012).

Citing a federal census begins with the most general element and moves toward the most specific. In the above example, we start with the record itself (the 1940 Census). The census is organized by county and state, so this is the next element. Then we have the specific schedule we are using. These elements at the beginning are those used by the National Archives in their organization of the census record, so they are key in identifying the specific record.

At the top of each census page are two fields labeled “Township or other division of county” and “Incorporated place.” These divisions must also be noted within the citation. Then we add the enumeration district (ED) number.

Each “sheet” is identified, with either “A” or “B,” but the “A” pages also contain a stamped page number. Both of these should be included where applicable. On the “B” pages, no stamped page number appears, so none need be included in the citation.

One difference between this 1940 census and previous enumerations back to 1850 is that–rather than including two identifying “dwelling” and “family” numbers–this enumeration only identifies households by a single “household” (or “dwelling”) number. We then identify the head of household (or a specific individual within the household) that we are examining.

Note that we have gone from the most general element to the most specific–from the year down to the specific individual.

Next we must include information on the repository holding the records. We separate this section with a semicolon, to show that it is a separate clause.

We first identify that we are using digital images. The 1940 Census, to my knowledge, is not being microfilmed but is only available via the digital images on various websites.

In this case I used the images on FamilySearch, so my citation reflects this fact. We must include the author of the website, the title of the website, the URL, and the date we accessed the record. The same format would be used whether we used the images on, or the National Archives and Records Administration’s official 1940 Census site.

In many of these cases, the title of the website is the same as the name of the corporate entity that publishes the website. In these cases, there is no need to repeat the name. For example, we do not have to cite the site as, ( […]

but we do have to cite the NARA site as

National Archives and Records Administration, 1940 Census ( […]

I hope that everyone is having a great time looking for their family members in 1940!

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “Citing the 1940 U. S. Census digital images,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 3 April 2012 ( : 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.] website launches

I have mentioned the books Evidence! and Evidence Explained on numerous occasions in this blog. These two books by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, have highly influenced my approach to record analysis and source citation.

Today, 1 April 2012, Ms. Mills announced the launch of a new website based on the books:

Across the past year or so, many of you have queried the genealogical mailing lists, asking when the 2nd edition of Evidence Explained would be available in a downloadable format. The wait is over. has now launched—not just as a vehicle for providing electronic downloads of an updated 2nd edition of EE and the QuickSheets, but also as an educational venue and a forum for issues relating to citation, evidence analysis, and record usage and interpretation.[1]

Through this site, for the very first time, one can download electronic editions of not only the 2009 2nd Edition of Evidence Explained, but all of Ms. Mills’s Quicksheets also published by Genealogical Publishing Company. All of these reference works should be on every serious genealogists’ bookshelf. These electronic editions now provide a means to have them with you everywhere you go–even those research trips where you just couldn’t.

As she mentions in her announcement, the site also includes several forums, i.e. “Citation Issues,” “Evidence Analysis Issues,” and “Record Usage and Interpretation.” These forums already have several discussions that are worth participating in, and, if you have a question of your own, you should post it to the forums for advice from other scholarly genealogists.

Visit and explore, and if you do not have these books in your library, get them now!

For more on Evidence Explained, read the following posts:


[1] Elizabeth Shown Mills (email address for private use), to APG Members Mailing List, e-mail, 1 April 2012, “Electronic edition: Evidence Explained.”

How do I cite a genealogy research conclusion?

I hope that my recent posts defining conclusions and differentiating between simple and complex genealogical conclusions helped researchers to better understand the nature of what we aim for in our research. As scholarly or aspiring professional genealogists we should always attempt to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard, and its condition that we arrive at a “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”

When we reach a conclusion the question is then: how do we cite them?

Many genealogists are familiar with the terms direct evidence and indirect evidence. Simplified, direct evidence is evidence–information from a document, for example–that states explicitly the solution to a genealogical problem. Indirect evidence is evidence that does not state explicitly the solution to a genealogical problem, but forms part of a larger proof argument.

These terms coincide slightly with the terms simple conclusion and complex conclusion. A simple conclusion–what is generally called a “fact”–can be reached when we have direct evidence that can be assessed as reliable information. For example, the date of death as reported on a death certificate can generally be deemed reliable. On the other hand, the date of birth on the same death certificate, unless provided by one of the parents, would generally be deemed as far less reliable.

In the absence of reliable direct evidence, we as genealogists must “go the extra mile” to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard in forming complex conclusions. This does not necessarily mean that the conclusion has to be difficult. The proof argument concerning Gabriel Diggs’s date of birth is a relatively straightforward argument. By meeting the conditions of the Standard even on straightforward and simple cases of indirect or conflicting evidence, not only do we strengthen the overall reliability and accuracy of our research, but we also develop the analytical skills and thought processes necessary to attack far more difficult cases.

Back to the original question: how do I cite a research conclusion?

In general, simple conclusions are easy to cite. Each established fact only needs cite the single most reliable source of direct evidence. If multiple sources of reliable direct evidence exist, we can also cite the corroborating sources. How we cite these sources in our written family histories, our genealogy databases, and anything else we produce remains the same.

The problem arises when trying to cite a complex conclusion. If, for example, we reach a conclusion that comes from examining multiple records with indirect and/or conflicting evidence, how would we cite this? Take another look at the Diggs example. The conclusion that I reached through examination and analysis of all sources was not stated explicitly in any single record.

In a professional written product, such as a client report or a case study for publication, we would cite the source of each fact separately. And of course, by fact, I mean simple conclusion. Complex conclusions stem from a series of simple conclusions. In many cases, complex conclusions are built from a series of both simple and complex conclusions. We should write a proof argument in which we cite the most empirical sources for each piece of information, and produce a “coherently written conclusion.” The Diggs example uses this technique for citation.

On the other hand, if we are simply entering data into a genealogy database, or producing a detailed, multi-generation family history or genealogy, then we would use a different strategy.

When entering information into a genealogy database–whether you are an evidence-based or conclusion-based software user–you cannot enter a proof argument as a “fact” or “event” (the terms most software programs use) with a single citation. And even if you could, for a complex conclusion, this would not be appropriate.

In a family history or genealogy being compiled for a general audience (i.e. non-genealogist family members), the focus would likely be on the stories of our ancestors’ lives. While one or two proof arguments might be able to be slipped into the work, we would not really want to include all of them.

In both of these situations,  we should include abbreviated proof arguments, citing each of the records we use, in the reference notes. We should also report any conflicting evidence, any indirect evidence, etc.

Most genealogy database programs now include a notes field that would work perfectly for this purpose. (NOTE: I am unsure about the compatibility of these notes with the current GEDCOM standard.) Endnotes can be appropriate for a general-audience family history, as the information would be there for those who are interested, and can easily be skipped by those who are not interested.

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “How do I cite a genealogy research conclusion?,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 21 March 2012 ( : 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 last word on GeneaBlogging and the Paradigm Shift

I knew when I posted “The Genealogy Paradigm Shift: Are bloggers the new ‘experts’?” that it might push some buttons. The piece was heavily edited, and it sat on the shelf for almost two months before I decided to post it.

What I did not realize is that the most controversial part of my post would be the last paragraph:

The online genealogy community needs to recognize [that blogs are public]. We need to join the genealogy community as a whole. … Treat your blog the way you would treat anything else done publicly. Put your best face forward. You don’t have to change your voice to sound professional, or anything like that. But at least cite the sources that you discuss in your blog post. Try to learn new techniques and apply them to your research, then write about what you learned. Not only will your ancestors thank you for that, but so will those new genealogists who look to your blog for guidance.[1]

Surprisingly, other bloggers felt that some of this crossed a line. The primary objection was raised by Marian Pierre-Louis in her post “Genre and Genealogy“: that blogs are aimed at a different audience than a scholarly journal, so citations are not necessary.[2]

I would like to respond to these sentiments.

First, I do recognize that there are many different reasons that people blog. For some, a blog is a way to tell stories that their grandmother told them. How do you cite that? You don’t, because you are the source. For others, a blog is a way to communicate back and forth with your genea-buddies. No citation needed for your own opinion.

However, if you are using your blog to report on your research, in my opinion, you should be citing your sources.

I am not the first person to suggest that genealogy bloggers cite the sources that they use. In fact, this subject seems to come up every year. Unfortunately, the geneablogging community decides almost every year that citing sources in a blog post is unnecessary.

I am definitely not one of the genealogy bloggers who believes this. You will see my sources in every post I write.

Thomas Macentee of Geneabloggers has led at least two separate initiatives on the subject of citing your sources.

In the first initiative, in March and April 2009, I believe that Thomas was trying very hard to convince other bloggers of the importance of citations. He even went to the trouble of writing a “Genealogy Source Citations Quick Reference” card, and a post about how to use HTML code to superscript numbers and add hyperlinks to source citations within blog posts. See below for the posts that I could find during this spring 2009 push:

You can find the “Genealogy Source Citation Quick Reference” card at

In the last of the posts listed above, Thomas expressed the following sentiments:

Always looking to convert a difficult situation into a win for the geneablogger community, I started Cite Rite a source citation initiative since the lack of citations in genealogy blog posts seemed to be at the heart of the issue with Mr. Duxbury’s distate for genealogy blogs.  In addition, I created the Genealogy Source Citation Quick Reference card to educate new genealogists and geneabloggers on the importance of source citation.[3]

The comments to these posts show that several bloggers already cited their sources, and others were beginning to do the same.

In the fall of 2010, a discussion on citing sources in blog posts again occurred, inspired by a post entitled “Bloggers Should Set An Example” by Martin Hollick in his former blog, The Slovak Yankee. Unfortunately, this post no longer appears to be available online. Martin notes on his website: “[this blog] once had over 1,000 posts, but I removed all posts that I thought were opinionated and left those that were pure genealogy, some 600 posts.”[4]

Thomas posted twice on the subject of source citations during this fall 2010 initiative:

Both the tone of the comments and the outcome from this discussion was vastly different than in the earlier one. It was apparent that the “geneablogging community” had spoken, and citations were a no-go for most bloggers. Whereas in 2009 Thomas provided new resources for helping bloggers cite their sources, in August 2010 he provided the graphic seen here.

To me, this is not progress.

I want to be clear that I am using Thomas as an example in this post because he is a leader in the geneablogging community. I am not picking on him at all. I know that he does use source citations in his own research. Most of his blog posts in Geneabloggers do not contain any facts that would need citations.

More experienced genealogists always talk about “if I only I knew … when I first started doing genealogy.” One of the most common phrases is “if I only I knew to cite my sources back then.” With more and more new genealogists coming into contact with and learning from blogs, wouldn’t we be doing them a favor by telling them, “Hey! Cite your sources!” and showing them how (or at least practicing what we preach)? Ten or twenty years from now, they won’t have to look back and say, “if only I knew.” Because they would  know.

How many genealogy bloggers believe that we should cite sources in our research? How many of us painstakingly add citations to our Rootsmagic, Family Tree Maker, or Legacy Family Tree databases using their citation templates? Shouldn’t we practice what we preach? Why is there a double standard?

What’s the difference between saying “my blog doesn’t need citations–it’s just for fun, it’s not a scholarly journal” and saying “my research doesn’t need citations–it’s just for fun, I’m not a professional”? The slope may be slippier than you think.

It’s true, bloggers. You are in control of your blogs, and it is your decision whether or not you want to cite your sources. I hope that even one of you will read one of these posts and decide to start.


[1] Michael Hait, CG, “The Genealogy Paradigm Shift: Are bloggers the new ‘experts’?,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 16 December 2011 ( : accessed 5 Jan 2012).

[2] Marian Pierre-Louis, “Genre and Genealogy,” Marian’s Roots & Rambles blog, posted 27 December 2011 ( : accessed 5 Jan 2012).

[3] Thomas Macentee, “In Defense of Genealogy Blogs,” Geneabloggers blog, posted 4 Apr 2009 ( : accessed 5 Jan 2012).

[4] Martin Hollick, “April Fool’s,” The Slovak Yankee blog, posted 1 April 2011 ( : accessed 5 Jan 2012).

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “My last word on GeneaBlogging and the Paradigm Shift,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 6 January 2012 ( : 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 is source citation part of the Genealogical Proof Standard?

I have discussed source citations so many times in this blog, from several different perspectives. In the course of addressing the Genealogical Proof Standard, I am once again drawn to discuss the subject of source citation.

The second condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard, as published by the Board for the Certification of Genealogists in their standards manual, reads,

We collect and include in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information we use.[1]

Hopefully I have convinced you in earlier posts why source citation is important. But why is this part of a proof standard? What does source citation have to do with the quality of our research conclusions?

I have briefly touched on this issue in other posts. You can read my previous posts about source citation by clicking on the category “Source Citations” in the sidebar on the right. But here I would like to address this question more directly, and provide examples.

Suppose a key document in your proof argument is a last will and testament. In your argument, you discuss information from this will.

The most important part of conducting high-quality research and producing high-quality conclusions is using high-quality records. You might remember the phrase “Garbage In, Garbage Out” that we all learned when we started using computers. This is true with genealogy as well.

That will you are using may exist in multiple forms:

  • There is the original will written and signed by the testator.
  • There is a recorded copy of the will transcribed by the court clerk into the will book.
  • There may be a microfilmed copy of the will book created by the state archives.
  • There may be an independently microfilmed copy of the will book created by the Utah Genealogical Association available at the Family History Library.
  • There may be a published transcription of the will.
  • There may be a published abstract of the will.
  • There may be a reference to the will with a partial abstract in a compiled genealogy.

So when you refer to the facts of the will, which version did you view? The citation would provide this information. In this way, you can assess the strengths and weaknesses of your sources, and determine the quality of any research based on those sources.

But this is not the only reason that source citation is part of the Proof Standard. To understand completely, look at the Genealogical Proof Standard as a whole:

  • Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent;
  • Collect and include in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information;
  • Analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence;
  • Resolve any conflicts caused by items of evidence that contradict each other;
  • Arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.[2]

In other words, we search for information, we cite the sources, we analyze and correlate the information, we resolve conflicting evidence, and we arrive at a conclusion.

But we could not possibly go directly from looking for records to analyzing the information.

When do we actually assess the quality of the source we are using? It could be considered part of the first step, where we are instructed to search in “reliable sources.” But this does not tell us how to determine what constitutes a “reliable source.” The first step deals with the search for records, the third and fourth steps deal with analyzing information. Only the second step deals with analysis of the record itself, as opposed to the information held within that record.

Think of the Genealogical Proof Standard as if it were written this way:

  • We conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent.
  • We assess the provenance and quality of the records we are using by collecting and including in our compilation a complete, accurate citation to the source or sources of each item of information.
  • We analyze and correlate the collected information to assess its quality as evidence.
  • We resolve any conflicts caused by items of evidence that contradict each other.
  • We arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

In my post “Five things you have to know about every record,” I discuss the importance of a record’s provenance.

When the testator died, his will was deposited with the Register of Wills (or the appropriate probate court depending on where you are researching). If you went to the Register of Wills and looked at that original will, there is a pretty good chance that it had not been moved much from the time it was originally deposited.

If, however, you looked at the original will at the state archives, this means that at some point before you saw it, that will was boxed up and transferred to a separate institution. Once it arrived, it was likely accessioned into the new repository under the provisions of the archival system already in use at that institution. This process may include separating records that had been previously filed together or combining records that had been previously filed separately. In some cases no changes to organization were made. In other cases, no consistent organizational system seems to exist from record group to record group or county to county. It is important to address this as part of your analysis of a record.

Of course, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we view a record. If we use an original will from County A held by the state archives on one project, then a few weeks later use another original will from County A held by the same state archives, we can generally assume that the analysis we did the first time we used the records remains the same. This may not hold true if we are looking at an original will from County B or County C, or any other record group from County A, but when using the same collection, it probably does. Once we learn about a collection or a record group, we can apply that knowledge to future research.

This analysis then appears as part of your citation. When creating a citation, you make use of the organizational system of the records you are using. This forms the basis, to a certain extent, of the format of the citation.


[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000), page 1.

[2] The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, pages 1-2.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Why is the source citation part of the Genealogical Proof Standard?,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 23 Nov 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.]

Do I have a citation obsession?

I discuss source citations in this blog a lot. I know. I just can’t help it.

But academics in other fields are not above obsessing over citations either.

Kurt Schick, a writing teacher at James Madison University, posted “Citation Obsession? Get Over It!” in the Commentary section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Mr. Schick agrees with many of my readers, I am sure:

What a colossal waste. Citation style remains the most arbitrary, formulaic, and prescriptive element of academic writing taught in American high schools and colleges. Now a sacred academic shibboleth, citation persists despite the incredibly high cost-benefit ratio of trying to teach students something they (and we should also) recognize as relatively useless to them as developing writers.[1]

Mr. Schick decries the time and energy that universities spend teaching how to cite in specific formats: MLA, APA, Chicago/Turabian, etc. In his opinion citation formats are nearly indistinguishable and relatively simplistic:

Why, then, could we not simply ask students to include a list of references with the essential information? Why couldn’t we wait to infect them with citation fever until they are ready to publish (and then hand them the appropriate style guide, which is typically no more difficult to follow than instructions for programming your DVR)?

In Mr. Schick’s opinion, citation format is unimportant until publication. I have heard this same argument used in the genealogy field on numerous occasions. (Of course, Mr. Schick refers mostly to published sources, whereas we genealogists should be using mostly original record sources.)

Instead of teaching citations, universities and colleges should instead “reinvest time wasted on formatting to teach more-important skills like selecting credible sources, recognizing bias or faulty arguments, paraphrasing and summarizing effectively, and attributing sourced information persuasively and responsibly.” These are all very important skills, I agree. However, in genealogy, why separate the two processes?

To me an accurate source citation is more than just how we know “where we got the information.” It’s more than how a reader can reproduce your research or assess the quality of your sources.

The internal process of a researcher creating an accurate source citation develops certain necessary evalution skills. In order to fully cite a record source–whether a published item, a government record, or an unpublished manuscript–you must understand certain things about the record. Who created it? When and where was it created? Where is it currently stored? How does this record fit into the larger collection of records of which it is a part?

These questions are among the five things you have to know about every record. In other words, taking the time to create a full and accurate citation itself inspires a deeper understanding of that source. I believe that this th reasons that the Genealogical Proof Standard contains the condition about citing your sources separate from the other four conditions, stated after searching for relevant sources and before analysing and correlating the information. Creating the citation allows the researcher to evaluate the source itself, rather than solely focusing on the information that source contains.

This explains my seeming obsession with citations.


[1] Kurt Schick, “Citation Obsession? Get Over It!,” in Commentary, Chronicle of Higher Education, posted 30 October 2011 ( : accessed 13 Nov 2011).

For another response, see also Carol Fisher Saller, “‘Citation Obsession’? Dream On,” in Lingua Franca blog, posted 3 September 2011 ( : accessed 13 Nov 2011).

Do you understand source citations?

Carol Saller is the chief editor of the Chicago Manual of Style. In a recent post on the Lingua Franca blog, she described a conversation with a group of university librarians:

The group unanimously perceived a lack of skills among its clientele: Students are routinely flummoxed as to how to search for or evaluate the sources they need in their work. … The extent to which college students are unprepared to conduct research may be surprising to those who assume that young adults are automatically proficient at any computer-related task. “Many students don’t actually know how to interpret the citations that they find in print or online, and as a result, they don’t understand what to search for,” says Georgiana McReynolds, management and social-sciences librarian at MIT. “They search for book chapters in Google because they don’t recognize a book citation compared to an article citation. Or they don’t know which is the title of the article as opposed to the title of the journal. Or they can’t decipher all the numbers that define the volume, issue,  and date.”[1]

This is precisely the reason that I have espoused the use of a consistent source citation format in my series of blog posts on “Source Citations–Why Form Matters.”

Without a consistent source citation format, how can a reader–even if that reader is only your future self–be expected to make sense of your citations? How will you be able to determine which is the title of a journal article, and which is the chapter of a book? Do you know how to read a source citation, or are you like these poor young college students, who never learned how to interpret a citation, and find themselves in trouble when they are required to find a source?

The worst part is that the citations for published material that cause such trouble for university students are relatively simple compared to some of the original unpublished sources commonly used by genealogists. When you read a citation in a genealogy journal, can you determine which element is which ?

Take the following citation, for example. I examined this record as part of a recent client research project:

N. Wilson to Col. Andrew Hynes, letter, dated 9 August 1825; Series I., Correspondence and Other Papers, 1797–1938, Box 2: 1823–1827; Edward J. Gay and Family Papers, Mss. 1295; Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

If you came across this reference in a genealogical society journal, and this related to your family, would you know how to find the record? Any researcher that had taken the time to learn the basics of the accepted source citation format would have no problem. They would understand, for example, that the standard citation format for state and federal archives begins with the specific item in a collection and proceeds from the most specific element to the most general element, as opposed to local records that begin with the most general element and proceed to the most specific.[2] They would know that commas separate elements on the same level of organization, while semicolons separate elements on different levels.[3]

Understanding the basic rules of this citation format allows you to easily discern that the letter cited above is at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The University has a group of manuscript collections called “Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections,” of which the “Edward J. Gay and Family Papers,” manuscript collection no. 1295, is one. Within this manuscript collection, the letter can be found in Box 2 of Series I.

All of the information necessary to locate this record can be clearly conveyed through the use of a consistent citation format. Any reader who understands the format can find this letter. Readers who do not understand the format–like those students mentioned by Saller in her blog post–will be confused.

Can those genealogists who say that a consistent format is unnecessary provide an example that supports this position? Can you come up with a way to cite an original manuscript that is as easily understood, either by another reader or even by yourself 15 or 20 years later, when you have no remaining memory of where you found the information?


[1] Carol Saller, “Getting the Most out of Academic Libraries—and Librarians,” in Lingua Franca blog, posted 18 October 2011 ( : accessed 29 October 2011).

[2] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained, 1st ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007), 434.

[3] Mills, Evidence Explained, 77.

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.]