In order to be effective, genealogical research must be recorded and organized. Generally speaking, a source is some document or record you use to add information to your family tree. We keep track of our sources by citing them. A citation is a written description of the source document or record that includes enough information to find the source again. For many years now, there has been a controversy among some of those interested in genealogy about the need to "cite your sources." This is not a minor issue but is a serious concern that arises, in part, from the proliferation of online family tree programs that contain little or no source citation documentation.
Genealogists are similar to the participants in any other intellectual pursuit in that there are some adherents who are academically oriented and have a substantial educational background. These individuals are usually either professionals or involved in publishing their findings in journals or other similar publications. The editors and review boards of those publications require extensive documentation and citations of every source and genealogists have developed an elaborate methodology concerning the format of source citations that matches other academic pursuits. The genealogical source citation format is patterned after the Chicago Manual of Style. (The Chicago manual of style. 2014. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.)
If we examine the adherents to other academic disciplines, we will probably find that there aren't that many hobby oriented microbiologists or neuropsychologists, but for better or for worse, genealogy attracts a huge spectrum of more casual participants who have no interest in publishing their findings or are even aware of the need to cite their sources.
Some of these people who start out with a more casual interest in genealogy take the time and make the effort to learn more about the subject and eventually end up in the more technical part of the pursuit. Eventually, anyone who pursues genealogical research seriously, will come to realize the need to maintain adequate source citations, merely to keep an account of what has been researched and what has not.
Fortunately, there are a number of online, free programs that assist any researcher to format their citations in a variety of styles. Here is a list of the more commonly used citation styles:
- APA - American Psychological Association is used by Education, Psychology, and Sciences
- Chicago Manual of Style - Generally used by Business, History, and the Fine Arts
- Harvard - Used by many universities and publications
- MLA - Modern Language Association is used in the humanities, especially in writing on language and literature.
- Turabian - Primarily a student version of Chicago Manual of Style
From the standpoint of someone who is unfamiliar with the differences between these major citation styles, the differences in practice appear insignificant. Here is a citation formatted in each of the different styles.
- APA — Mills, E. S. (2007). Evidence explained: Citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co.
- Chicago — Mills, Elizabeth Shown. 2007. Evidence explained: citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co.
- Harvard — MILLS, E. S. (2007). Evidence explained: citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace. Baltimore, Md, Genealogical Pub. Co.
- MLA — Mills, Elizabeth S. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007. Print.
- Turabian — Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007.
One of my most common criticisms of the whole formal citation system is that these citations, although "correctly" formatted, do not tell me where I can get a copy of the book. For a popular and readily available book, such as Mills book, this is not a significant problem but it seems to me that with more obscure sources, there should be a notation as to the repository where the book or other material can be found.
Now, back to online formatting programs. One of the most available and common is the WorldCat.org website. This website has over 2 billion catalog entries from libraries around the world, including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Here is a screenshot showing an entry for a book with the citation screen open.
In addition, the program also tells you the nearest library with a copy of the book or other material.
There are a number of other online programs that capture information from the web and format it into a citation. Some of them support many different citation formats. The one I personally use is Zotero.org, a very complete and easy to use program that speeds up the process of compiling bibliographies and adding citations. Zotero.org also has rather complete video and text instructions about how to use the program. Here is a list of other citation programs I compiled using Zotero.org.
“BibMe: Free Bibliography & Citation Maker - MLA, APA, Chicago, Harvard.” Accessed September 13, 2016. http://www.bibme.org/?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=/12-best-free-online-bibliography-and-citation-tools&utm_medium=link.
“Citation Generator.” Cite Fast. Accessed September 13, 2016. http://www.citefast.com.
“Citation Machine: Format & Generate Citations – APA, MLA, & Chicago.” Accessed September 13, 2016. http://www.citationmachine.net/?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=/12-best-free-online-bibliography-and-citation-tools&utm_medium=link.
“Citavi - Organize Your Knowledge. Reference Management, Knowledge Organization, and Task Planning.” Accessed September 13, 2016. https://www.citavi.com/en/index.html?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=/12-best-free-online-bibliography-and-citation-tools&utm_medium=link.
“Docear.” Accessed September 13, 2016. http://www.docear.org/?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=%2F12-best-free-online-bibliography-and-citation-tools&utm_medium=link.
“EasyBib: The Free Automatic Bibliography Composer.” EasyBib. Accessed September 13, 2016. http://www.easybib.com/.
Otto, Jonathan. “OttoBib.com.” OttoBib. Accessed September 13, 2016. http://www.ottobib.com/.
“Save Time and Improve Your Marks with CiteThisForMe, The No. 1 Citation Tool.” Cite This For Me. Accessed September 13, 2016. http://www.citethisforme.com.
There are likely many other such programs online if you search for citation programs.
Whether or not you decide to use a formal citation style or not, you should still cite your sources with enough information to allow yourself and others to find the place where you found the information you include in family tree database, whether online or on your own computer or device.
Here are the previous posts in this series.