While participating in the FamilySearch Forums on the subject of the Research Wiki, it dawned on me that some of the participants apparently did not know what a citation was. Sometimes as genealogists we are so familiar with a subject we think everyone understands what we are talking about. That issue was brought home to me again when I spent an hour or so trying to explain to a patron at the Mesa Regional Family History Center, the difference between a source and an event or fact. She had listed all of her source citations as facts in RootsMagic.
I think some of the terminology may have gotten confused as used by different programs or websites but the basic ideas are usually very close to the same.
First, a source is a person, document or artifact that provides information. If your mother tells you her birth date and place and you then record the date and place in your genealogy program, then your mother is the source of the information. The actual information is the date and place. The wording about where you got the information that you put in your genealogy program or on a Family Group Record (paper) is what is meant by the "citation."
The relationship between fact - source- citation is that the fact or event is recorded, the source is a record of where the information came from, and the citation is the format or content of the recorded source.
So why do we record the "source?" There are quite a few reasons. The most important reason is to allow others who want to use the information to have some idea of validity of the information. For example, let's suppose my mother tells me her birth date, 27 April 1920. I could just say nothing. Then the next person who looks at that date will always have a question about where the information came from. To make things interesting, suppose that I do a little research about my mother and find a copy of her birth certificate. The birth certificate says that she was born on 30 April 1920. Which date should I choose? The real answer is choose both, but record the source of each date. You may also wish to add a comment or two about which one you think is correct and why. Let's further suppose that future research comes up with yet another date, 29 April 1920. Once again, you record where you got the information, such as a Social Security Application for Benefits. Once again, you should record all of these different sources as citations to the event, even if (or because) they disagree.
What would happen if you didn't record where you got the information? Failing to record the source (note where the information came from) means that sometime in the future, either you or one of your relatives will have to go back and do all the research over again, especially if your records show the three dates. Why not simply ignore the conflicting dates and pick the one you like? That does happen but if you ask the question you probably have a few things to learn about genealogy and genealogists.
But let's assume you put the 27 April 1920 date in your records and you choose the inaccurate date because that is what your mother told you. But, she was really born on the 30th of April. Why do I care? In truth, it may make no difference at all. But there are plenty of circumstances when the date of birth is crucial for identifying an individual, such as where others with the same name are born in the same place around the same time. I purposely choose a trivial difference, in real research situations the difference may and can be significant.
Now, what do I need to record so I can find the source again? Elizabeth Shown Mills wrote an 885 page book about how to write citations to sources. You may ask, are you trying to tell me that I need to read an 885 page book just to write down where my information came from? Well, the answer is that it depends on how the information may be used.
Let's go back to the mother's birth date. I record the source as, "She told me herself." What will that do for future researchers? Almost nothing. Both the reference to "She" and the reference to "me" are ambiguous. I may know who I am talking about but no one else will. Let's look at Evidence Explained (Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007.) page 45. Mills states that "the minimal identifying information [from a living person] should be name, city, and state." (Italics in the original). Once a person has died, then further information concerning the contact could be properly included. I would also record the date the information was obtained and any surrounding facts that might be important, like she was in a care center for memory disorders.
Now here is the next question. Is your mother a valid source for the information? Moving on to page 49 of Evidence Explained, we learn that "A citation to "Personal knowledge of So-and -So" is a valid citation only if that person has primary (firsthand) knowledge of the event or circumstance." People do not generally have firsthand knowledge of their own birth. As to the birth certificate, the informant may or may not have had the direct information, depending on circumstances.
There is a whole other world out there that appreciates clear, concise and accurate citations. They are all the people who come after you and have to read or try to interpret your work. Any work left without a citation will have to be redone at some point in time.
So the answer to the question in the title of this post is not really very simple. But it can be answered by stating that a citation is a way of recording the source of genealogical (or any other) information in a way that the information can be found again by someone else.