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

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Footnotes, Endnotes, Sources, Citations, and Attachments: What Works, What Doesn't

NOTE: You may wish to read the comments to this blog post. The comments are more extensive than my original post. 

Genealogy is a rather egalitarian persuasion and the vast majority of the people who are interested in either family history or genealogy have had little or no training in compiling footnotes or endnotes for a formal treatise on a genealogical subject. Many of us associate footnotes and/or endnotes with the task of writing a "research paper" in high school or in a class at the college or university level. If you didn't have that opportunity, then it is likely that you have never used a footnote or endnote in your entire life. There are, however, a small number of people who are professional-level genealogists, some of whom are involved in publishing articles in formal genealogical journals such as The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. In addition, for those of us who want to join a genealogical professional organization and become accredited or certified as a "genealogist," learning to cite sources is one major prerequisite and "proper" citation format is almost a profession in itself.

Here is an example of a partial list of the footnotes to an article published on the American Ancestors website from The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 172, Whole Number 685, Winter 2018. The article was authored by Eugene Cole Zubrinsky and is entitled, "The English Origin of John Sutton of Hingham and Rehoboth, Massachusetts."

In our modern, online world of genealogy, there is a major ongoing emphasis on providing information about where contributors obtain the information they incorporate into their online family trees. In this regard, all users of the major online genealogy programs are being encouraged to "cite their sources." The absence of a source requires subsequent users of the family tree to redo all the research to verify the validity of the information provided. 

Unfortunately, the need to provide an adequate explanation about the origin of any incorporated information is either largely ignored or misunderstood. Part of the common failure to provide information about the origin of incorporated information comes from the academic and professional publication world. If you have an advanced degree from a university, you probably became aware of publications such as The Chicago manual of style. 2017. This type of publication sets out to standardize the way books, articles, and other publications are formatted. For academics and professional writers, they are a "rite of passage" into the world of doctoral dissertations and commercial writing. It would be fairly simple if The Chicago Manual of Style was the only such publication. There are, regrettably, dozens of such "standards." 

In the genealogical community, there are also standards for publications. Many of the publications have formal publication guidelines. For example, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register mentioned above relies, in part, on the following:
Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997). The introductory sections of this book are especially valuable.The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
Outside of the realm of those aspiring to publication, there are few guidelines for the average contributor to a family tree website. In fact, there is a significant confusion about what is meant when genealogists talk about adding sources to the information in a family tree. The common terms used are:
  • footnotes
  • endnotes
  • sources
  • citations
  • attachments
There are probably a few others also. However, from a practical, non-academic, and non-professional standpoint, the whole subject can be summarized as follows:

Tell us where you obtained the information you enter into your online family tree.

That's it. Now, I do have something to write about academic citations. First of all, they are almost entirely useless for subsequent researchers. It is all well and good that the footnotes or whatever follow some acceptable citation standard. But citations, as propounded by the authorities, do not tell us where we can obtain the information. Yes, they say something about "parish registers" or whatever but where is the parish register found?

Our online family tree programs give us the ability to attach both a link and an actual copy of any information we incorporate. That valuable function is entirely missing from scholarly journal articles. If I want to verify what the journal writer cites in his or her footnote, I have to go find the "source" myself. Whereas, if I want to look at the source linked and/or attached to an online family tree, all I have to do is click and look at the attachment. Scholarly articles with dozens (hundreds) of footnotes give the illusion of citation but are in fact a throwback to pre-internet, pre-electronic, prehistoric times. 

Another clarification is in order. The "source" is where the information can be found. The "citation" is the description of where the information can be found. These two terms are often used interchangeably. If you add a date or a place or a name to an online family tree, tell us where you found that information and give us enough of a description or link to actually see the document or record. If no document of record was used and you made up the information. Tell us. If you heard the information from a relative. Tell us. Otherwise, we have to go find the source ourselves. 

What about all this complicated citation mumbo-jumbo? If you have aspirations of writing for professional publications, be my guest. Learn all about commas, indentions, style, and everything else that goes along with publication. But don't expect that level of citation to exist in online family trees and don't tell me that your footnotes help me to believe what you write unless I can clearly see where to go to find the information. 

I hesitate to give a specific example because I do not want to denigrate any contributor to a major publication, but telling me that you got the information from such and such a book or record does not help unless you also tell me where you found it. 


  1. For books it's an interesting one. Is the book a standard, widely available publication? No need to say where to get it. Is the book a rare publication only available in a few places? Then it needs to be treated much more like an archival document and the place where it was got from enumerated.

    The reason that so many academic papers don't have repositories in is that they are citing publications which fall into the widely available category. However you will find more recent papers often have links to the websites of the relevant journal or to search engines which will get you links to those papers. For example I went to the website of the Journal of the American Chemical Society to have a look at a science research paper. It's their Reagent Controlled Stereoselective Synthesis of α-Glucans article which at least at the moment can be found at

    That paper contains 22 references. Some of those references like 20 and 21 are amplifications of information in the main text, like reference 10 in the genealogical example. For example reference 20 reads, "Purification of the oligosaccharides generated in the glycosylation reactions was accomplished using only size exclusion chromatography." That simply tells the reader a particular purification technique was used to separate products of a reaction. Reference 22 is to a paper published in the same journal, and it reads, "For the development of halo-benzyl ethers as a set of orthogonal protecting groups, see:Plante, O. J.; Buchwald, S. L.; Seeberger, P. H. Halobenzyl Ethers as Protecting Groupls for Organic Synthesis. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2000, 122, 7148– 7149, DOI: 10.1021/ja0008665 [ACS Full Text], [CAS]" So there we have the standard sorts of things in an academic citation, namely authors of the paper, title of the paper, name of the journal it was published in and then year, volume and page number information. That alone is enough to find the information as any decent academic library at a university with a chemistry department will have the Journal of the American Chemical Society available. However in addition the online version has hyperlinks to the actual papers; that's the bit in the square brackets at the end of the citation. References to other journals are structured similarly; for example reference 10 (c) is " Lu, S.-R.; Lai, Y.-H.; Chen, J.-H.; Liu, C.-Y.; Mong, K.-K. T. Dimethylformamide: An Unusual Glycosylation Modulator. Angew. Chem., Int. Ed. 2011, 50, 7315– 7320, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201100076 [Crossref], [PubMed], [CAS]" That's a paper in Angewandete Chemie International Edition, another journal.

    None of the 22 citations in that paper make reference to archival documents. The vast majority of them are primary source citations to journal articles. As I said above journals are sufficiently common that the repository to get hold of them does not have to be specified. Within 25 miles of where I live there are multiple academic libraries where I could get hold of JACS issues if I wanted to. Failing that I could order copies from the British Library's journal service, or get a copy directly from the publisher. Not cheap, but other than that easy to do. Why bother specifying that they were sitting at Leiden University when they accessed the information on the publisher's website in the references? Why bother even specifying that they went to the University of Leiden's library to get copies of any articles not actually available online (very, very, very few these days).

    Moving back to genealogy and it's a different matter. The number of genealogical journals is tiny, reflecting the size of the hobby and the even smaller size of the profession. Even there when citing a journal paper it would not be worth citing the repository that the journal was got from. For example the Journal of One-Name Studies can be found in the British Library catalogue and copies of articles can be ordered from it, the same as any other academic journal.

  2. Continuing as the original post was too large for your comments section:

    However original archival documents do need the repository citing as the are generally only available there in paper form. Taking an example from my family tree is a 1911 census entry for someone I believe to a relative by marriage, but have not proven the blood relationship to the husband. The citation I would produce for that would be, The National Archives of the UK (TNA): RG 11/6104, sch 72, Emily Spreadborough. That's enough to find the document in their catalogue or order the original if at the archives. It's also enough to find the entry at Ancestry and Findmypast. I don't know if it's enough to find it at My Heritage. I do know it's not enough to find it at Familysearch, but that's mainly because Familysearch has a comparatively awful search engine. The only augmentation to that source citation I might make would be to have a list of repositories in a separate entry in the paper with postal and online addresses.

    Looking at the example citations in the genealogical article I believe that there are some problems. For example in reference 5 in the main text of the article it refers to a marriage which took place on 22nd October 1620. However in the reference itself there are inadequate instructions for finding it. The footnote airily says, "Eaton St. Andrew, Norfolk, parish register, 1568–1758, p. 45, in England, Norfolk, Parish Registers (County Record Office), 1510–1997" and then talks about the register being available on both Familysearch and Ancestry. Upon going to the Familysearch website, browsing through the images and then going to the parish of Eaton St Andrew, the Familysearch website says that I can look through Banns; Baptisms; Burials; Marriages; or Baptisms, Marriages, Burials sections. That's two places the "cited" marriage might be. From experience I know that it will be in the Baptisms, Marriages, Burials section as it pre-dates Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act. That is still an inadequate citation as it cannot be used by itself to find the information. It is also very, very incorrect to say it is "page" 45. It is not page 45, it is IMAGE 45, with each image having two pages on it. The actual register pages are not numbered.

    Personally speaking I would prefer a reference to the original document in Norfolk Record Office with catalogue reference PD 72/1, marriages 1568-1698 and then the data of the marriage, namely 22nd October 1620. If you're going to go the Familysearch route then the citation should include the fact you can find it in the Banns, Baptisms, Burials section if browsing to eliminate the ambiguity. Also why on earth doesn't the online version of the article link directly to the images on the Familysearch and Ancestry websites?

    Comparing that JACS article I linked to and that NEHGS article you linked to is not especially favourable to the scholarly genealogy article unfortunately in terms of the quality of the source citations.

    1. Well, thanks for the extensive and insightful comments. This is really a complex subject but for an online family tree it always best to link to the source document or provide a digital copy. Thanks again.

  3. Citing sources is to my way of thinking dangerous.

    Why do I write that simply because family history or genealogy is based on balancing probabilities, it is not as some say based on fact as the details of any bit of information is reliant on the accuracy of the information given.

    The human mind when presented with a “solution” will subconsciously accept “facts” that fit the “solution” this means if a pedigree is supplied with sources for the information supplied most people will accept the choices presented rather than search for alternative scenarios.

    In other words they will close their minds to the fact there could be two couples in a particular village giving birth at roughly the same time or that a certain baby may have died shortly after birth rather than had married 30 years later, etc., this is called conformation bias.

    I would therefore suggest that although it involves more work for later researchers an unsourced tree is possibly more beneficial to future generations than a well sourced tree.


    1. An interesting thought. Although my experience with unsourced family trees or pedigrees has been pretty frustrating and most, if not all, have turned out to be inaccurate. I these trees fall into the category of suggestions rather than research.

    2. By the way, I think you mean "confirmation bias"

    3. Interesting that you talk about "conformation" bias. Ironically enough (given my posting above) that's actually a chemistry term.

      Configuration of a molecule is the shape of a molecule as expressed in terms of its chemical bonds. To change the configuration of a molecule you have a break a chemical bond and make a new chemical bond. Conformation on the other hand is the shape of a molecule as expressed in the ways it can change shape without breaking any chemical bonds. Were the term conformation bias to be defined it might be expressed as the bias of a molecule towards the lowest energy state of its possible conformations.

      Conformation of molecules is actually extremely important in biochemistry as the shape of a molecule determines its biological activity. There are even instances of pathogenic proteins where the pathogenicity is determined entirely by the shape of the protein. Those are the prions which cause mad-cow disease and similar.

  4. Yes not being a trained typist my fingers sometimes hit the adjacent key, I did indeed mean "confirmation bias".

    The suggestions of "unsourced family trees or pedigrees" were simply examples the same goes for any information given in a text.