Friday, December 14, 2012

What Not to Cite

I recently bought the books Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case by Christine Rose and Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills. The book by Christine Rose is slim and quick to read through – although very informative – and thus I started with that. What caught my attention was a small paragraph all the way at the end of the book, in the chapter about proof summaries and proof arguments. The basic idea of this paragraph was that if all your evidence for a fact is direct and with no conflicts, including a proof summary in your written narrative is not necessary. It also stated that “Your family history will include citations for every fact; those citations will speak for themselves.” (1) This got me thinking about my own citation practices – which differ accordingly to what I am adding the citation to.

For every source I look at, I make the appropriate citation. But where I put those citations differs between my genealogical database and my family history narratives. In my database, I attach sources to facts, and with them my source citations. However, I do not attach every record to every fact it states. For instance, when it comes to birth dates, I attach all records to that fact that directly state the birth date (or year). Examples of this are the birth certificate, a newspaper announcement, and an obituary that states the birth date. However, there are plenty of records that also give direct information on birth date that I do not attach. For instance, marriage certificates and death certificates that mention the person’s age. These sources do give direct evidence as to when a person was born, and I do take them into account – but I don’t add them as a birth date source unless the age conflicts with the birth date I’ve already found, or they are the only sources I have for a birth date.

When it comes to my family history narratives, I provide a citation for every fact, but only multiple ones where it is necessary. If there is no conflicting evidence for a fact, I would only cite birth certificate for birth date, as it is best record of all the records that have direct evidence of the full birth date.

Elizabeth Shown Mills in Evidence Explained seems to agree with the way I do my family history citations:

“Thoroughness in citing sources does not mean that our final product must cite every source we used. … When our research is reasonably complete and we begin to craft a narrative, we become selective. At this point, we base our conclusions upon the most authoritative sources and those are the materials we cite.” (2)

“Thorough research often yields multiple sources for the same information. When we convert our notes into a narrative or permanent database, we select the best evidence we have found. If several sources for a fact are of the same value, we may cite all of them in the same reference note.” (3)

I will admit that in the interest of not ending up with an even longer end note section than I already do in most cases, I only cite one source for every fact, even if I have multiple sources of the same value. Unless, as stated before, multiple sources are necessary to arrive at the stated fact. I want to keep my narrative readable, since most of the people reading it are family members and not genealogists.


1. Christine Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case (San Jose, California : CR Publications, 2009), 52.

2. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009), 45-46.

3. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009), 51.

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