Citing Sources Without Stressing Out

Citing sources is one of those things in genealogy research that tends to make us kind of kind of twitchy. We know we should be doing it and we want to do them right... so we tend to stress out about it. But there is a key to thinking about citing sources—and it won't raise our blood pressure.


Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 6

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 16 minutes.

Why Do We Need to Bother With Citing Sources?

Citing sources isn't just for professional genealogists. Even if you are the only one who will ever see your research, you should cite where you found things. 

It will help you go back to where you found specific pieces of information. (I have a hard time remembering what I had for dinner last night, let alone where I found information about my third-great-grandfather's death date.)

Citing your sources will help you with that cousin who has something wrong in their family tree. Asking them to change it "because I said so" usually isn't met with much success. Having good source citations to back you up will help your case. (They still might not change their tree, but your odds are better.)

Citing sources is also crucial for analysis. When (not if) you find conflicting information, you will need to know where you got the information. Only then will you be able to piece together which is correct.

Why So Stressed?

I think a lot of the stress we feel with source citations is that we don't quite know what it is we're supposed to cite, especially when we're dealing with online resources. 

I'm a firm believer that if we have the elements that we need, we can always change the formatting later. The first thing is to be clear on what you need to cite.

The Key to Remember When Citing Sources

The key to remember when citing genealogy sources is to cite what you see.

Let's say that I use a book by Mary Smith that contains abstracts of marriage records in XYZ County Probate Court and I find my ancestors in there and it says their marriage record is in XYZ County Marriage Book A, page 123. What do I cite?

In this case, I need to cite Mary Smith's book. That's what I actually used. I didn't use the marriage records at the Probate Court, so I shouldn't cite that. (What I can do is add a note to my citation of Mary Smith's book to say that it references XYZ County Marriage Book A, page 123. It's a heads up that I should go look for that record.)

Databases (without images) are the same way. If I use the database "Hendricks County, Indiana Marriages (1902-1964)" on website of The Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library, I need to cite that as my source. I shouldn't cite the marriage record at the courthouse, because I haven't actually used it.

Hendricks County, Indiana Marriage DatabasePin This!

Results from Hendricks County, Indiana Marriages (1904-1962). Image courtesy The Genealogy Center, Allen County Public Library.

When I go to the Hendricks County Clerk's office and see that marriage record, then I can cite the original record.

What About Citing Digital Images?

What if instead of going to the Hendricks County Clerk, I went to FamilySearch and found a digital image of Sarah and Samuel's marriage record? How do I cite that?

In this case, it's a two-part citation (or a "layered" citation, as Elizabeth Shown Mills calls it). We want to cite the image because we actually saw it. But we also need to make it clear that we didn't see the record in person; we only saw a digital image of it. We need to tell where we found it. 

The first part of the citation would be along the lines of "Marriage record of Samuel L. Bartlett and Sarah C. Roberts, Hendricks County, Indiana marriage book 13, page 26." 

The second part of the citation would indicate where we found the image. Something like, "digital image viewed [or downloaded] from "Indiana Marriages, 1811-2007',"

Be sure to include the name of the collection within FamilySearch (or Ancestry, MyHeritage, or whatever website you're using). 

Cite What You See

The basic reason for a source citation is to point us (or someone else) back to where we found information. The only way we can do that accurately is to cite what we actually used. If we used a book, we cite the book; we don't make it look like we examined something else. The same goes with a database. We don't make it seem like we went to the courthouse and looked at the record.

Digital images are the same way—we cite the image (because we actually saw it) but we include where we found that image. That way, we are able to tell exactly where we found it. 

Posted: October 10, 2018.

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  • Just an observation from an adoptee: For most adoptees there will be little if any sources we can lay our hands on about ourselves. Except for nine state, records are sealed and adoptions procedures closed, and as adoptees age records are purged by courts to make room for the younger conscripts. DHHS purges documents as well. An adoptee’s birth record is anything but a truth, with only the date of birth being accurate, and very much shortened from the usual ‘long’ form; non-adoptees have.
    For birth relinquished children, they may and do have a hard time digging up information and documentation because they have no memory to guide them whereas those of us who were abandoned at an age of recognition, we have indelible memories of events that happened to us. If you fall into this category, write you memories so that those who follow can know your story, especially for your children and grandchildren. History is history, and no one knows your history better than you.
    That said, I love AJA’s common sense approach to genealogy. she follows the principle of KISS which saves wear and tear on the person who keeps and tells the family history. As Amy noted, cousins may quibble over some event… it does happen. Just be careful when someone else decides to tell your story -one that they cannot possibly know.

    • There are levels of sources. Primary – Secondary, etc. Use what you have. If your Aunt Mabel said “your dad went to Oklahoma”. Write your source with something like ‘Phone conversation with Aunt Mabel, 11 Oct 1989.’ After years of digging you probably wont recall when and where you heard that tidbit that may be a good lead. Also when searching don’t make assumptions ~ even SOME records survived the Chicago 1871 fire; SOME records are available for 1890 census era. Case in point: person in cemetery office told me in person “they aren’t here”. Another visit found some info. and yet another found the ACTUAL burial record. SAME office; different people. These were my grandparents burials. I KNEW they were buried there! My parents brought me there.

      • re:Chicago graves. some old graves in calvary cemetery in chicago were removed from their original burial site with family permission if there was still a family member around after 90 years!
        …believe it was to enlarge a route along lake michigan.

    • If you’re looking at a digital image of the death certificate, you would make a two-part citation: one part for the digitial image and the second part for where you found it. Something like: John Smith death certificate, Ohio death certificate 12345 (1942); digital image viewed in “Ohio, Death Certificates 1920-1980,”, viewed 10 October 2018.

      • Amy, if Marilyn found 4 death certificates on ancestry why didn’t you say answer – “Good news! has cited these sources for you”. The topic of your post is citing sources with out stressing out. Would you consider saying “In regards to the subject of this blog, if you found it on a major online data base (you could list those) a source is attached – an imperfect source – but a source.”

        I have a 6,000 person tree, researched over 12 years. I’m guessing that each person in this tree has an average of 8 documents and every single one of them has a source and I didn’t lift a finger. That is low stress! I won’t be writing for NGSQ – I’m good

        • In the case of Ancestry, the pre-made source citation doesn’t give you the citation for the image, only the database. If I want to cite Rebecca Ammons’ death certificate that I found as part of the “Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1966” collection, it doesn’t tell me that it was certificate 183812 (1918).

          Including the citations from Ancestry is fine while your tree is still there and everything is attached. But not everything is on Ancestry. Having a framework on how to get the elements of a citation when it isn’t pre-made (or doesn’t have all the info) is important.

          • Thanks Amy! I was wondering about the included citations as well and can see your point completely. Thanks for clarifying.

  • I take great care of documenting my sources. My related question is what is the best available genealogical programme that includes full source documentation? I have enjoyed this capability with The Master Genealogist, which encourages citations. But the discontinuation of TMG leaves me looking for a replacement.

    • RootsMagic does a good job with source citations. It has templates based off of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained.

  • Great episode! I’m going to share it with my local group. I did a talk at our last meeting about sources and citations – I think they’d find this podcast very useful as well 🙂 Thanks!

  • Amy: I have done significant research in the Department archives in Alsace online. Am I correct that I first cite to the website (e.g. and then to the book and page (e.g. Commune de Struth, Mariages, 1821, no. 14). I usually append a download of the record. Anything else I should do?

  • This is one of the most helpful podcasts I’ve even listened to! Source citation has been a stumbling block for me since almost the beginning! Simple is best!

  • I am LOVING your podcasts!!!!! You have such a calm, informative delivery. I am sad when the podcast ends because I enjoy them so much. Keep them coming because I learn soooo much.

  • Good points. Years ago when I was first starting out on this project, I once stumbled across a 1940 census that showed my father living with his mother and his step-father and he was listed as having his step-father’s last name, but with his correct first name and birth last name as his middle name. So I dutifully printed out that census image and considered myself finished with that item. Then years later when I wanted to add that as a media source on tree, do you think I could find that image again? No!! I knew it existed because I had printed it out, but never listed where I had found it. I spent two days digging around on-line before I finally found it again on This time, I had enough years behind me to know to write down where I found it. I probably don’t go far enough in citing sources as shown in your information, but at least I know that the record is referenced with a weblink to

  • Thank you for so much information, I have been searching high and low, for a record on my grandmother, I have her date of birth marriage certificate , her father and mother, but nothing or her, and this is 3 years later when I started researching, if I cannot find anything , does this mean that no documentation was done on her, she was the eldest of 7 children , I can find them, have you any suggestions please.

    • What location and what time period? Also, when you say you haven’t found anything, do you mean you haven’t found anything online or you haven’t found anything at all? Not all locations have their vital records available on places like Ancestry and FamilySearch.

      You might want to consult the FamilySearch Research Wiki and look for the area where she lived. Look at when vital records started and if there are any gaps in the records (like from a courthouse fire). The wiki is a great place to discover that information.

  • Hi, very interesting and extremely useful, I hope over the next few months to update my tree with full citations as explained above.
    However there is one query I have, how do you or is there a program which generates the numbers that you insert say after a name and also shows the same number in your database of citations?
    I’m sure there is some proper term fr this but I don’t know

    • Hi, John. Do you mean footnotes? Most genealogy programs will generate those automatically when you run a report like a family group sheet or a narrative.

  • Amy,
    I am enjoying tremendously reading though some of your past posts. This one was spot on. I’ve found it difficult to impress upon genealogists the importance of citation without eye-rolling! I think it reminds people of school and most want to have ‘fun’ with genealogy. But you did it beautifully and simply here. I would also recommend Thomas Jones’ book, Mastering Genealogical Documentation, that has taught me so much.
    Kind regards,

    • Thanks for the kind words, Robyn! I’d say that most people want to have fun (or at least have some enjoyment) from their genealogy pursuits. If it reminds them of term papers from high school, that’s a “no go.”

  • I am doing a Mulligan on my genealogy research and going back and putting in all the source citations. I realized that I needed to add the name of the database to each of my census sources. Thanks for the tip!

  • I learned early to cite my sources, however now I have more pages of sources than the actual report contains. How to I pare the pages of sources down to a reasonable amount?

    • When I feel like my sources are overwhelming, I take a look to see if there is any redundant sources. For example, have I cited a printed index and then later found (and cited) the original record? No need to cite both; delete the citation to the index.