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Sourcing — The Key to Your Family Detective Work

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Simple Ways to Back Up Your Research
Keeping track of your sources of information may seem like unnecessary paperwork, but it's essential to your research now and for future generations. This article give you some simple ways to make sure your family facts are backed up with records.

Genealogy has always been something of a detective story. You find clues about your ancestors, do some research, and hopefully find answers to your questions. Like any good detective, you keep notes on what you find as you go along. Sourcing takes this note-taking one step further — it involves referencing the proof for each fact you add to your family's history, and is as valuable to you and future researchers as a detective's "caught-in-the-act" photograph is to his client.

So Why Doesn't Everyone Do it?

There are several usual objections to sourcing: it takes too much time, it's too hard, and the perennial favorite, "I'm not planning to publish this or anything." For many folks, it seems unnecessary, especially if genealogy is more of an occasional interest than an addiction. However, sourcing is what ultimately ties the entire genealogy community together — we all rely on each other's work to some degree, whether it's a pedigree chart sent by your cousin or a family history written two centuries ago. Sourcing your work ensures that anyone who picks up where you left off doesn't have to retrace your steps and can have confidence that your facts come from reliable sources.

How it Can Save You Time

Almost as importantly, good documentation can save you time in your own research. Keeping track of where you find information about an ancestor can help you quickly find it again in the future. If you know that a certain piece of information about an ancestor came from a source in Des Moines, Washington, then you won't need to look in Des Moines, Iowa and waste valuable research time. Sourcing also works as a way to remind you of which sources you've already checked, and which ones have been useful. If you pick up a branch of your tree after a long time, it's helpful to know where you've already looked.

Give Others More Confidence in Your Research

It will also help those who follow in your footsteps. Even if you only intend to share your findings with family, consider the possibility that your children or some other relative may want to continue what you've started. You may also want to share with other genealogists in your family. In either case, you will want to back up what you find with evidence — it's what makes it possible for them to take your word for it. This is especially important if your research debunks a cherished family myth or turns up something unusual.

If you are planning to publish or share information outside of your family, then documentation becomes even more crucial. As worldwide databases like the World Family Tree continue to expand, more and more people are looking to them for clues about their ancestors. Including sources gives them (and you, if you use sources like these) more certainty that the information is correct, and the chance to double-check if there is some discrepancy. Also, if you're submitting your family history for inclusion in a journal or as proof for entering a hereditary society such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), then you will need to provide source information according to their guidelines.

So How Do I Source My Information?

Sourcing can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. There are many guides available about how to write citations, and you can certainly follow one of these systems if you like. John Wylie's article "How to Cite Sources" is an excellent reference on how to cite many different types of genealogical resources. These are good guidelines to follow if you're planning to publish your data to a broader audience than family.

If you're planning to share your genealogy more informally, then the important thing is to provide enough information so that another person could find your source. Generally, you will want to include the following:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Publisher's name and location
  • Publication date
  • Location of the source and identifying information (for example, the library where you found a book and its call number)
  • Specific information for the piece of data you found (page number, line number)

Depending on your source, there may not be information for some of these categories. A census record, for example, won't have an author. For public records like this, items like microfilm roll number and page number become more crucial, so be sure to write them down as you go along. You may also want to make copies of particularly useful records so that you can refer to them later.

Sourcing takes a little bit of time up front but it doesn't need to be a big chore. Genealogy software programs like Family Tree Maker allow you to enter source information once, and then apply it to multiple records as necessary. So, once you've entered that census record as a source for great-grandpa's birthplace, it only takes a few clicks of the mouse to add it as a source for other facts about him. They also allow you to format your sources into end notes so that they can be included in reports.

Sourcing and documentation, while they may seem like extra work at times, are really the backbone of genealogy. Taking the time to prove your information makes your research more solid, adds great value to the whole community of genealogists, and leaves a more lasting legacy for those who follow you.

About the Author
This article was written by staff.

Learn More
• Discuss this topic with other researchers
• Have a question about researching your family history? Ask an expert
How-To Article: Why Bother? The Value of Documentation
How-To Article: Who Owns Genealogy? Cousins and Copyright
Ask an Expert: Evidence! That Says it All

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