Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

To Cite or not to Cite, That is the Question

My apologies to Shakespeare, but citation is a real issue for the entire genealogical community. There is a vast gulf between the knowledgeable academic genealogical scholars and the run-of-the-mill family researcher. One example of the difference can be seen from a cursory examination of Public Member Trees on To quote from, "This database contains family trees submitted to Ancestry by users who have indicated that their tree can be viewed by all Ancestry members. These trees can change over time as users edit, remove, or otherwise modify the data in their trees. You can contact the owner of the tree to get more information."

Rather than use an ancestor's name that I know has dozens of submitted trees, I searched the Public Member Trees for less popular names. My first search was for my maternal grandfather, Harold Morgan. I immediately found 10 member submitted trees listing Harold Morgan including one submitted by my daughter. One of the many helpful features of is the fact that they list the number of attached records, sources and photos to each entry, so it is a simple process to see whether or not any sources have been attached or not. Looking down this short list, I find the following:
  • 10 sources
  • 11 sources
  • 7 sources
  • Unsourced
  • Unsourced
  • 1 source
  • 1 source
  • 1 source
  • 2 sources
  • 3 sources
Here is the interesting thing about this list. makes it exceedingly easy to find new sources in their data base and add them to your tree. The program even flags the readily available sources with the little green leaf. It is apparent that people will not add sources even if the source and its entire citation will practically fall in their lap. My daughter was the one, by the way, with the 11 sources. I wondered how long it would take to add those sources to my newly added grandfather?

I have to admit at this point, that I have not put a lot of my genealogy online in publicly available family tree programs and no reflection on, but I am putting some information into I do have a limited family tree in for my Tanner family, but had not added any of my maternal relatives. So I decided to see exactly how much time it would take to add sources for Harold Morgan.

I added my mother and her father Harold Morgan in about 30 seconds. Immediately, came up with the little green leafs that show documentation is available. They showed Harold Morgan with nine matching public member trees (what I had already found) but also a list of other available records. Within another few minutes I found the following with documentation:

1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census Record which included all of the family members living at home at that time.
Salt Lake City, Utah Cemetery Records
Utah Cemetery Inventory
World War I Draft Registration Card
4 Public Member Family Trees

That took me less than 10 minutes. So in about 15 minutes I added 8 source citations. At this point, I decided not to add any more duplicative family trees, so I ended up with fewer citations than my daughter.

What is the point? The point is simple, going back to the opening statement of this post, there is a vast gulf between the knowledgeable genealogists and the public interested in family. Even when citations are readily available, the time to add them is trivial and you don't have to worry about format or anything else, some people will still not add any sources. So whatever we are doing as genealogists, we are not communicating well with the general public about the need for citations. 


  1. I often CHOOSE not to cite my sources on trees submitted to Ancestry. The same family trees in my Family Tree Maker program may have loads of pictures and sources. It is a conscious choice on my part. I want interested people to contact me. I want to SHARE information with the other person and not just give it to them. Often I've quite an investment in documents, etc. I guess it is a reaction to the "click and claim" phenomena I see so often where people give you no credit for what may have taken you years to put together. Waddayathink?

  2. Kathy, when I see public trees like yours, without sources, I don't try to contact the owner. I usually assume it's untrustworthy and simply ignore it. How do I know the information wasn't completely fabricated? I may, however, use the information as a lead to guide my research, on particularly elusive people.

    Generally, the more sources, the more I trust the information. On the other hand, I've also seen public trees with multiple, conflicting copies of the same source attached. Some novices uncritically attach any source with a similar name. I ignore those too. It's the quality of the source citations that's important, not the quantity.

  3. James,

    I hope you got my most recent comment. It was lengthy. I've been having some issues with the comment function. It will post as "anonymous" instead of with my google account ID. It is inconsistent. My name is Kathy Reed and my blog is called Family Matters. You can read the story of my g-grandmother by going to my blog at Click on the article called "When the Pieces Fall Into Place". I would have emailed you, but I didn't see an email address.

  4. "So whatever we are doing as genealogists, we are not communicating well with the general public about the need for citations."

    I could not agree more...and now I'm getting all fired up about this topic again.

  5. I know this discussion is a year and a half old, but I've been thinking about Kathy and MNFamilyHistorian's discussion. I feel as Kathy does -- when checking my own activity, I see long lists of people who have copied my material to their trees without so much as a quick thank you note in reply.

    On the other hand, I agree with MNFH. I generally skip right past the public trees; even when they do have sources, those sources tend to only be other public trees, or at best the same sources (censuses, etc.) that are readily available at Ancestry anyway. Public trees that have no sources don't stand a chance of catching my eye.

    I suggest the solution is to make the tree private. It'll still show up in others' searches (and I believe it will even report the number of sources), but the owner must be contacted directly to gain access to the source.