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Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, “Citing Your Sources,” OnBoard 1 (September 1995): 24.

Quality or junk? How do you want your research described by others?

Many factors combine to create “quality” in genealogy. But there is only one so obvious, so fundamental, that quality is never possible without it: proper source citations.

And there is only one fault so obvious, so fundamental, that it instantly brands a piece of work as the product of an amateur or careless researcher: poor source citations.

We may know a set of records better than anyone else in existence; but if the material we extract is not identified in a manner that permits others to easily relocate the document we used, then our information is suspect. Neither our knowledge nor our skill is trusted.

That’s a terrible indictment. But it is one that hangs over the head of many a well-intentioned and dedicated person. Whether we are librarians or society volunteers who answer mail inquiries—whether we are family historians, writers or professional researchers—there is no other standard. We must document, and we must document well.

Reference notes address two basic research needs: the need to know where a specific record is located; and the need to understand that record.

The Need to Locate

A proper source citation for a record is the equivalent of an address and phone number for a person. Every address and phone number must include certain elements, if people are to successfully contact the party they seek.

Source citations have their own basic elements that we must learn. They differ somewhat, according to the type. To strip them down to the barest essentials:


  • name of author
  • title of book (in italics or underlined)
  • place of publication
  • name of publisher
  • year of publication
  • page (and possibly volume) number

Periodical article:

  • name of author
  • title of article (in quotation marks)
  • title of periodical (in italics or underlined)
  • volume number
  • date of publication (month and year)
  • page number

Original record:

  • title of document (i.e. Deed: John Brown to Sam Smith)
  • date(s) written and/or recorded
  • collection name (e.g.: Probate Judge Files; or Thomas Tidbury Collection)
  • book/page of document (if recorded in bound manuscript volumes)
  • file or box and document number
  • repository name
  • repository location (city and state suffice for public institutions; if document is in private possession, give street address.)

The Need to Understand

Records come in all shapes, forms, and degrees of reliability. Each time we use a record, we need to note any and all factors that affect its interpretation or the degree of weight that we (and others) should put upon its information.

In both our personal notes and the work we make public, our source citations should include that interpretative data. In short, once we refer researchers to a specific source, we are obligated to alert or caution them, as they may be less experienced with the materials.

General Guidelines

The work of certified genealogists—of whatever specialty—is expected by both the public and the Board to observe the following basic principles.

  • Every statement of fact that is not public knowledge must carry its individual citation of source.
  • Every photocopied document must have the citation clearly penned or typed thereon.
  • Every abstract of a document that we record or send out to others must have a complete citation attached to it.
  • Every statement of fact on a group sheet or an ancestor chart must carry a reference note with its own individual citation of source—a complete citation.
  • Italics or underscoring should be used for titles of published books, magazines, newspapers, and microfilm collections.
  • Quotation marks are used for names of articles (within a published book or magazine) and for unpublished manuscripts.

Aaach! you say. Learning all this is too much trouble! Oh? How much time have you invested in learning PAF or Roots IV or WordPerfect?

If you aren’t an expert at source citation, for the price of what it would cost you for a night at the movies, you can buy any of several good citation manuals. This is one of the few areas of life in which quality truly comes cheap!


Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL

Update (December 2024)

For the latest guidance on source citations, traditional and electronic, the Board for Certification of Genealogists highly recommends Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 3rd edition, revised (Baltimore: Genealogical Publ. Co., 2017).

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.