Ancestry and FamilySearch — along with sites like FindMyPast and MyHeritage — have millions of records that we can use in our genealogy research. However, none of them are a source. Here's what I mean.
What Is a Genealogy Source
A source is wherever you get your information. It can can be online or offline. It could be a certificate or a tombstone. It could be the conversation you had with your Aunt Betty. It could be a database.
What a source isn't is Ancestry, FamilySearch, etc.
Cite What You See
You've heard the advice to cite your sources. You've probably heard the guidance to cite what you saw. (If you used a book of compiled obituaries, you would cite that book, rather than a newspaper that is referenced in the book.)
So, if we're supposed to cite what we see and what we've actually used, why isn't Ancestry or FamilySearch a source?
It's because they're made up of a bunch of different sources.
A Website Is Not a Book
A book is a single item. It has a beginning and an end. If you add more pages, you no longer have the same book. (Maybe a revised edition.) But when you say you used — when you cite — that book, it is known that what you used is somewhere between the front cover and back cover of that item.
A website isn't like that. Websites by their nature can (and do) change. They are also made up of lots of different parts. You can add to a website and it's still that website.
A website is more like a library. If you don't like that analogy, you could say that a website is more like a bookcase. The website provides a frame or a holding area for all of these different parts.
Why This Matters
Making a website analogous to a library or a bookcase helps us be more specific when we're creating source citations. When you were in school, could you have used "Found at the Washington High School Library" as a source for a term paper? Probably not. But that's essentially what we're doing when we say "Found it on Ancestry" or "Found it on FamilySearch."
Two reasons that we use source citations are 1) to be able to tell where a piece of information came from and 2) to aid in evaluating our conclusions. Ancestry, FamilySearch, and any other website you use have different parts to them. If we say only that we "found it on Ancestry," we don't have enough detail to tell which part of Ancestry we found that information.
If I used Ancestry to find my great-uncle Harold's birth date, there's a big difference in having found it in someone's family tree or in the database of Ohio birth records that they have from the Ohio Department of Health. Similarly, if I used FamilySearch to find the death date of my great-great-grandmother, there's a huge difference in finding it in "Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953" (which has digital images of the death certificate) than in "Ohio Deaths and Burials, 1854-1997," which is a compilation of data from a bunch of sources (none of which are identified in this database).
It Isn't Just the Mega Websites
It isn't just with mega sites like Ancestry, FamilySearch, FindMyPast, and MyHeritage that we need to be more specific about. Any reference to a website should be more specific.
If you were using the free databases on the Genealogy Center's website, did you use "Fort Wayne Catholic Cemetery Through 1993" or did you use "Lloyd Bros. Walker Company Monument Records, Toledo, Ohio"? If you found something on the Gallatin County (Montana) Genealogical Society's website, did you find it in the obituaries collection or the vital records index?
The Website Is Part of the Source Citation
I'm not one for spending tons of time deciding if part of a citation should be in quotes or italicized. I concentrate on getting all of the elements of a citation that I need; I can always reformat it later. To be meaningful, a source citation needs to tell us what we used. That means we need to include both the part of the website we used (such as the name of the specific database or article) and the name and URL of the website.
Elizabeth Shown Mills' book Evidence Explained is considered the go-to guide for the formatting of genealogical sources. You can find samples on her website EvidenceExplained.com, plus discussions of various styles in the discussion forums. (Many libraries have this book. It's also available through many booksellers and on Amazon.)
Helping Our Future Research
When we get into the habit of considering a specific database or article on a website as the source, it puts us in a better frame of mind to evaluate what we're looking at. By thinking of "I found this information in this specific database," it puts us in a better position to evaluate what we have. "I found it on Ancestry" or "I found it on FamilySearch" is handy shorthand when we're talking, but it doesn't work as a source.