First, does the book give footnotes, endnotes, or other citations to the sources the author used? Second, are those citations useful?

One could say that “any citation is better than none,” and citations do not have to follow all of the “manual of style” rules to be useful. Their main purpose is to tell the reader where the information came from. That said, an understanding of standardized citation rules is always better than none.

The really old books usually have no citations at all. That was just the way it was done then. Donald Lines Jacobus is credited with launching the use of genealogical citations in the mid-twentieth century, and there are a number of style guides in print today, the most detailed being Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace.[1] Also, see Chapter 5 (“Adding Citations”) in Guide to Genealogical Writing.[2]

To be useful, a citation needs to provide enough information to identify the source – author, title, date and place of publication, volume, page – for the researcher to be able to find the book in a library catalog and then to find the specific information within the book. This obviously becomes far more complex with modern digital and on-line publications, which need to provide enough description of the product that a researcher can find it, even if its original URL is no longer active. Red Flags: Are the sources “derivative”? Did the author just copy out of one or more earlier genealogies without tracking down original sources?

To be useful, a citation needs to provide enough information to identify the source…

Useful citations can go beyond these basic facts to include explanations, additional sources, and comments. This might be explaining that an estimated death date was taken from the dates of will and probate. It might also include an historical note, such as “The Pequot War was…,” with a citation for further information. A footnote may also address the reliability, or lack thereof, of a secondary source that the author is perhaps forced to cite because no original sources are available. A citation to “Aunt Millie’s letter,” for example, may be unprovable for lack of access to the letter, but it would still be reliable if Aunt Millie was allegedly there when her niece was born.

Does the lack of source citations mean the book is “no good” at all? Not necessarily, but it makes things harder. One way to initially assess the value of information in a book is to check it against readily available sources, such as published vital records – which you are going to have to do for your own research, anyway. If dates, places, names are not matching up, then even more critical scrutiny of the book is obviously necessary.

Next week we will continue this train of thought with a discussion of “Age and Methodology.”


[1] Third edition (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2015).

[2] Penelope L. Stratton and Henry B. Hoff, CG, FASG (Boston: NEHGS, 2014).

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

13 thoughts on “Citations

  1. Thank you very much for this series of blog entries! They’re extremely helpful in keeping your advice handy as I go through my research.

  2. “To be useful, a citation needs to provide enough information to identify the source – author, title, date and place of publication, volume, page – for the researcher to be able to find the book in a library catalog and then to find the specific information within the book.”

    Helloooooo, Did you ever think about this?

  3. LOL Toni, you hit the nail on the head. And Alicia, thanks for these particular blogs, they have certainly helped me. All salient facts need to be footnoted and don’t forget a comprehensive bibliography at the end of the study. I find these are useful, not only in telling readers where the facts came from, but in the future, they are handy for me to remember what I did rather than dig through a file drawer full of notes and documents. I footnote and contribute to the bibliography as I go along. I also write explanatory footnotes to elaborate on a particular word or sentence in the body of the study. Sometimes, trying to explain something in the body of the text just confuses everyone.

  4. DAR didn’t accept “The Family of John Stone”by Truman Lewis Stone dor this very reason. But when I did source all the families Imneeded, there were just two errors:Russell Stone d. 1802not 1803, and was buried not at Norton Hill but Locust Grove Cemetery, Greenville, Greene Co., NY.

  5. As a newbie to this wonderful walk through time, I can only say Thank You to all the wonderful and helpful articles. I have a file of all these blogs for reference. I can go back and re-read them any time I want and find EXACTLY what I need for advice and assistance. Thank you ALL so much for all the suggestion and ideas as well all the “rules and regs” I need to do the job correctly.

  6. When encountering a citation WITHIN an old-style published genealogy for which you may not have time to further explore, Bob Anderson’s solution to aiding further research is simplicity itself: [Talmadge Gen 10, citing Easthampton TR]. [Great Migration Begins 3:1798.] This approach allows you to “see” the footnote in the body of the text without overburdening the text.

    Use of qualifying words such as “quotes from” or “references” are also proper to use: The Plympton Generalogy (1884) by Levi P. Chase for GMer John Plimpton presents a lot of original records either as summaries or direct quotes, often heading the preceding as “In town records”, or writing “from county records”, etc. One could then use Anderson’s format, in the short term, as “Plimpton Gen 44, referencing Medfield TR”, which I have down in rendering Chase’s sketch on John into Anderson’s “Preserved Puritan” format. Cuts down on extra pieces of paper, too.

  7. Alicia – As someone from a history background, I love to see footnotes clarifying or expanding upon some statement in the main text (and always footnotes, not end notes!). Additional information may not be best served in the main body, but is nearly always useful. And use those older unsourced genealogies like online trees – as a possibility worth considering, but only if the information can be proved.

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