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

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Issue of Source Citations in Genealogy

If you want to push a hot topic button for some members of the online genealogy community, all you have to do is take one position or another about the need for source citations. If you really want to get some response, you can bring up "proper citations" as an issue. I must say that I am as opinionated as anyone on the subject and bring the subject up frequently because of the abuses and excesses I see on all sides of the issue.

I think that we need to have some historical perspective in this regard and understand that adding source citations to genealogical data has not been such an active issue as it is today. The genealogical community is, of course, laboring mightily to position itself in the face of the publication of an 887 page definitive book on the subject.

See Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007.

It is interesting that we have such an amazingly complete treatise on a subject so few genealogists are even aware exists.  Let's see why that may be the case.

Individual participation in genealogical research has historically been extremely limited. If you would like one of the few historical studies of genealogy as a profession and avocation, see

Weil, François. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. 2013.

It is amazing what a little bit of history will do to quell self- righteous indignation over the lack of source citations in online family trees and elsewhere. To give you an idea of where genealogy is coming from and why there may be some problems such as lack of source citations, let me give just one quotation from the Weil book.
From the 1860s to the mid-twentieth century, racial purity, nativism, and nationalism successfully dominated the quest for pedigree and gave genealogy more contemporary ideological relevance than ever before. The language of race, heredity, and later eugenics invaded the genealogical sphere, helping many white Americans describe themselves self-consciously as Anglo-Saxons and claim racial and social superiority over others. This new language was so pervasive that many of these “others” (African Americans and European migrants) came to share some of the tenets of racialized genealogy. In this new context the market for genealogy experienced tremendous , though unregulated, growth, which in turn helped develop frauds on a scale unknown in the United States until then. Some reacted and attempted to regulate the field. Other Americans, true to alternative visions inherited from the antebellum period, persisted in connecting genealogy to moral, religious, and democratic concerns, but by the late nineteenth century they were in the minority.
Only when the racial and nationalist foundations of genealogy were undermined in the middle of the twentieth century did the configuration of the genealogical interest in the United States change once again. It took decades, the civil rights movement, and the new interest in ethnicity and heritage for American genealogical culture as we know it today— popular, multicultural , and multiracial family history— to settle in. As the family history market has developed with the advent of the computer revolution and the Internet, genealogy has become a major component of the American economy of culture. In the age of DNA, the return of biological evidence to genealogy also raises new, fascinating, and troubling questions about the identity of individuals and groups within American society. Weil, Fran├žois (2013-04-30). Family Trees (Kindle Locations 122-126). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition. 
Truly, genealogy in the United States has a troubled and very complex history. Condemning pedigrees and compiled genealogies from before the 21st Century is a currently popular position, but from this quotation, it is evident that a scholarly, carefully documented approach to genealogy is not only presently a rare commodity, but has been almost since the beginnings of populist genealogy. Converting the huge masses of online family tree submissions to the need for careful source citations would take nothing less than a restructuring of the entire United States' educational systems and a radical change in the value system. Advocating adding source citations to genealogical submissions online involves much more than a simply educating genealogists.

In addition to these cultural and social issues, we have the plain fact that the addition of a source citation in no way assures the accuracy of the online entry. Adding and evaluating the reliability of any particular source is a skill that is learned either through relevant educational experience or through trial and error in practicing research.

The real question is whether or not genealogy is an inclusive or exclusive pursuit. If we take the position that genealogy is an academic discipline, it must needs be exclusive in the extreme. We would have to be like lawyers and pass unauthorized practice of genealogy rules and enforce them. On the other hand, if genealogy is inclusive, then perhaps we need to recognize that errors and bad online family trees are part of the trade-off. Railing against a particular online program because it does not "require" source citations is definitely an exclusive approach. Perhaps those of us who view genealogy as needing sources should be a little more tolerant of those who have not yet reached that point of understanding the process.


  1. It would be difficult for me to believe that anyone beginning a recording of their genealogy would even consider citing sources, and were we not all "beginners" at one time? I think I am like most others. I started recording my pedigree, the first information comes rather quickly and I cannot even type fast enough. But then I find a conflict and need to determine what is correct. That is when I see the need for sources. Are those who now insist on "the proper way" to cite sources different? Fortunately we all learn to do better. I am thankful for those who encourage sources as well as those who are just beginning.

    1. Yes, that is true. I also started out putting together a pedigree without sources other than my own personal records 33 years ago now.

  2. "Perhaps those of us who view genealogy as needing sources should be a little more tolerant of those who have not yet reached that point of understanding the process". A thoughtful point of view.

    But how do we reconcile that view with the locking down of some profiles and your (entirely justified) advocacy of the Silver Books? Somehow there has to be an impulse whether it be via education, self-realisation or guidance through system features for the learners to take a more robust stance over assessing the quality of the data that they input. And since about the only one of those three that can be controlled by outside parties *is* system features, it seems to me that it is the software that has to be improved. Either that or we don't complain, don't lock down, don't advocate certain books, etc. "Put up or shut up"?

    There is no magic bullet launched by requiring sources - the really crucial thing, I believe, is not citing the source but understanding whether this John Doe really is my John Doe. As you say "addition of a source citation in no way assures the accuracy of the online entry".

    But in the meantime it is disappointing to see FamilySearch (who *should* know better) running data-loads to automatically create people in FS FamilyTree from datasets such as the Cheshire Parish Register (yes, personal experience here) *without* creating the source citations in FS FT at the same time to illustrate where the data has come from. A perfect opportunity lost to say "Look, this is what a source citation looks like in FS FT, nothing magical about it."

    1. Good points. Unfortunately, FamilySearch is an easy target is this area. But you do have to "know the territory" and realize where it all came from.

  3. I know there are people out there who are fed up with the whole 'What is Genealogy?' issue (see I'm coming more-and-more to the conclusion, though, that this issue isn't simply one of citations versus none, or even beginners versus experienced. There are two distinct endeavours out there: there are people who only want to create and share their family tree as a pastime -- and without all the academic hassles -- and there are those who want to take a rigorous approach to research and documentation. Rather than criticising people indulging in the other endeavour to ourselves, we should be recognising their different objectives. Unfortunately, if there are two endeavours then they do not have distinct descriptions, and I believe this has several unwanted consequences which we're all aware of.

    1. Very good point, except the gradations between the different types of genealogy are not defined. It is not quite so easy to differentiate between the two extremes.