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Overview of Simple Citations ""

The following information was originally posted on the RootsMagic Forums on January 3, 2011 (although I've made a few changes):

I pulled my hair out for many years (since the mid-1980’s) as I agonized over how to cite my sources. I published my family history back in 1995 (just before the Internet took off) and had used PAF (and perhaps an early version of Ancestral Quest), along with another DOS program, GenBook to create it. By that time, I had already struggled with citing sources for many years.

Since then, a lot of genealogy software applications have been developed but I’ve been unhappy with most of them as they’re simply too complex and/or do a miserable job when it comes to citing sources in a simple manner. In fact, I had put my genealogy work aside for several years simply because converting things to a useful format was such a pain. I was thrilled when I decided to look into RootsMagic (late 2009) and liked it a lot – in comparison to most of the other genealogy programs, it’s simple to use and I also liked that ability to use templates to cite sources. At the same time, I also came across the book Evidence Explained (EE). I was also very familiar with another book, Cite Your Sources by Richard Lackey, and had made extensive use of the (now very old) Silicon Valley PAF Users Guide (up to the mid 1990s). Both of those books were very useful.

After attempting to use the enormous number of RootsMagic templates for Evidence Explained for an entire year, I found myself becoming more and more frustrated. A very large number of those templates had been created in an attempt to comply with Evidence Explained! While the the author of EE, Elizabeth Shown Mills, put considerable effort into her work, I'm now convinced that her system is far too complex and the manner in which her approach cites sources is very inconsistent. It’s often difficult, if not impossible, to tell what the information within many of EE's citations refer to. For example, the lead element of each citation can vary greatly – sometimes it refers to the author, other times, it’s the name of the person that document refers to, it might be the name of the document, the type of the document, etc. Sometimes, important information (such as dates) is left out of a citation while at other times, a lot of very specific information (such as the location of repositories) is included but not needed.

After getting very frustrated trying to cite a couple of newspaper articles (which should have been an extraordinarily easy thing to to), I threw up my hands and simply gave up trying to use Evidence Explained. I didn’t know if I could come up with a system that was simpler and already knew that traditional citation systems don’t work well with genealogical sources, especially since family histories need to cite too many “strange” sources (okay, so how many other citation systems need to document tombstones?)! So . . . I spent a couple of weeks pondering the problem (it was either that or keep banging my head against the wall as I had already done for several decades) and created what has now become Simple Citations.


Simple Citations is Intended to:

  1. Keep citations as consistent as possible, regardless of the type of source.
  2. Be easy to use and not require hours of thought trying to figure out what information should be included or what template to use.
  3. Provide others with a reasonable chance of locating the same record. Of course, family historians deal with so many unique one-of-a-kind items, that this can often be a difficult task. (For example, I have the original copies of my great-grandparents’ naturalization papers, as well as one of my great-grandfather’s actual passport from Italy - how might someone else attempt to obtain these records?)
  4. Minimize the level of specificity required to cite each document while, at the same time, providing enough information to find the same source again. In my opinion, citing census records, especially using EE, can really get out of control – there are far too many templates as a result - some cite the country, state, county, township, institution, supervisor’s district, enumeration district, page/sheet number, visitation number, household number, line number, name of each individual, etc. Other citation systems even cite the sources of sources (in other words, the records were viewed on a web site but the scanned copy originally came from microfilm, housed at a land-based location, at a different repository). The variations, of course, are endless.
  5. Exclude spurious information that is not relevant to finding a source. Although errors can be made when scanning documents (as so many genealogical sources are), the actual format of the document is not important to cite (e.g., microfilm, microfiche, scanned, etc.), it is the responsibility of others who read your citations to verify your sources. They will also need to be aware of pages that may have been left out, scanned out of order, etc. and should also seek out other copies of the same document if there are any questions. Although it is also important for you to note this information , it should not be included in the citation but in other notes.

What Information is Important When Citing a Genealogical Source?

Traditional citations (books, magazines, newspapers) don’t provide every last bit of detail to assist readers in locating information (at most, page numbers are provided) and, while genealogical citations may need a bit more information, it is not the purpose of a citation system to hold the hands of all future researchers. For example, how much information is really required to locate a census record? Are visitation and household ID numbers really needed? Do we really need to know the line numbers of each individual on a sheet? I don’t think so.

With that in mind, I looked at my own records (I keep copies of everything) and tried to find commonalities between very disparate records (driver’s licenses, census records, club membership cards, books, articles, prayer cards from [Roman Catholic] funerals, marriage certificates, etc., etc.) . Essentially all records have a creator/author, a title or a description (sometimes a person's specific name or names must be included), and perhaps a location where it was created/published/stored (it's unlikely that we know who made a gravestone but we often do know the exact location where it can be found – which will also likely never change). More often than not, we also know the date or approximate date that a source was created. As dates are very important, recording the exact year, month, and date (when these are available) are often extremely important.

Master Source

While there is considerable variation (and often a complete lack of agreement) on the elements found within genealogical citations, nearly all programs divide citations into two parts: "Master Source" and "Source Details." Briefly, information found under "Master Source" refers to the actual source. "Source Details", on the other hand, refers to information about a specific individual or entry within the source. For example, a city directory will contain thousands of names including the names of individuals and their families. In addition, a city directory may also contain the names of many families who are your ancestors but they are not related to each other (in other words, they belong to different branches within your family tree). To document this, information about the city directory itself would be included in the "Master Source" whereas specific information about each individual would be included under "Source Details". The "Master Source" would be the same for many individuals while the citation would only differ for each individual. (In actual practice, I create one Master Source for each family in a city directory.)

As mentioned previously, there are several items that are common to ALL sources and, therefore, this information should be included under "Master Source". These items include:

  1. author/creator/maintainer,
  2. date, and
  3. title/description.

There are also a few other items that are common to many, but not all, sources and are also included under "Master Source". These include "Department or Office," "Person(s) of Interest," "Publisher," and "Publisher Location." These will be described in detail elsewhere. In the event that this information isn't applicable to your source, then this information SHOULD NOT BE INCLUDED in your citation. These fields are optional.

Source Details

"Source Details" contains information about INDIVIDUALS within a source that needs to be cited. Often, there is also additional information that can be extremely useful and should also be cited. Again, as I examined very different records, I found some commonalities: page numbers, the name of each specific individual a source refers too, the exact location where an event took place (this is can DIFFERENT than where a source was published, which would be cited, if appropriate, under the "Master Source"). The name of the repository (which is only needed for one-of-a-kind items and/or online sources), miscellaneous record numbers (i.e., certificate number, case numbers, file numbers, grave locations [section, plot, grave numbers, etc.]) – this might also be a good field for other information that splitters have to have – census line numbers, microfilm numbers, etc.). There should also be a place to attach a personal ID number – while this is NOT printed in with your citations and is found in other places on RM templates, it really should be attached to your data within you own collection of materials. Also, it would be great to be able to sort sources by this ID number. I struggled (and still do) with the need to cite census enumeration districts, household ID numbers, and family numbers and have included them here only until I can decide if they are really needed (besides, this information will make many splitters happy too).

All of this additional information may be included under “Source Details.” In summary, much of this information is optional and is lumped under: page number, information about individuals, location, census information, repository (only if needed), misc. numbers, and Personal ID.

Traditional, Non-traditional, and Census Templates

Now that I identified what I believed were the key components for genealogical citations, I created ONE TEMPLATE that would work for ALL sources in order to ensure consistency between citations. One of the very significant problems with other citation systems (particularly Evidence Explained!) is that every time a new genealogical source is found, new templates need to be created and there is no consistency between them. Ugh! This also causes considerable confusion when deciding if one of the gazillion or so existing templates needs to be used or if a new one must be created for the source. This is completely unacceptable, so my intent was to create ONE template. Simple Citations has a "Master Template" that can be used for all sources. However, I can't think of a single example that would use all of the fields needed to adequately describe a source, although a few templates, created from the Master one, that excluded unnecessary fields would make data entry a lot easier (and would also reduce the amount of decision making required). I like to save time!

Three templates (all subsets of the Master Template) were created: Traditional, Non-Traditional, and Census Records. These were created when I realized that there are two kinds of records family historians deal with – "traditional" ones (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) and "non-traditional" ones (gravestones, Aunt Myrtle’s diary, photographs with notes written on them, etc., etc.), and that there are often differences between them. For example, traditional records often have a formal title, non-traditional records do not but can be described (e.g., death certificate). Traditional records often have an author whereas non-traditional records were often created by an entity (i.e., churches, governmental agencies, etc.) or the creator is unknown but the place responsible for maintaining the source is known (e.g., we know the name of a cemetery where a gravestone is located). All of these can, arguably, be listed as the “author, creator, or maintainer of a source” and should, therefore be listed as the lead element in any citation. The date (if known) is crucial. We know the title of a source or can give that item a useful description to serve as a title (i.e., birth certificate, passport, passenger ship record, etc.), and we often know where the item was created.

Because of these similarities, and yet because “traditional” and “non-traditional” records are slightly different in the manner that descriptors are assigned to each field, I created a template for each one. Census records, of course, are also so common (and contain data that should be cited that is not found in most other sources), that I created a template for them too.

The most important thing, however, is that I created a “master template” that included all of the information I could think of that might be needed to cite all sources. In order to keep things very consistent (which Evidence Explained does not – and that drives me NUTS), I created the master template first and insisted that all other templates must be derived from it. In essence, the other templates (e.g., traditional, non-traditional, and census) were created by deleting unnecessary fields from the master template depending upon the type of records to be cited.

Validating Simple Citations

Ideas may look good on paper (or on the computer) but until they are actually put into practice, their usefulness cannot be verified. To test Simple Citations, I first created a fake genealogy and, using real records, created a list of sources for my imaginary person. Once that seemed to be working very well, I then started using the templates on my own real data.

I have now used Simple Citations for several years and, at least for me, it has finally served to make citing sources a lot easier - I no longer have to consult books or spend hours trying to decide how (or what) to cite. I’ve also found that Simple Citations provides me with enough information so that others should be able to find the same information later.

Final Tweaks

One final thing – I had to determine what order to present each element in the citations as well as the syntax to use. Briefly, the master source information (which is contains the most important information to find a source again) is listed first and always in the same order. Second, any source detail information is separated from the master source information by double bars || (I thought that would be useful - I'm also a musician and a double bar represents a "break" between sections but does not stop the music - similar to the relationship between the Master Source and Source Details. Using a double bar also makes it very easy to visually discern information pertaining to the Master Source and to Source Details.) Each element should usually begin with a capital letter and end with a period.

Good Luck!

There are many other things I examined while creating Simple Citations. Even after several years of use, I have made no changes to the templates (other than to fix some very small details that don't impact their use). RootsMagic users may find them here. I’m having a lot of success with it and have stopped stressing over how to consistently cite my information. I’m sure it’s impossible to make everyone happy (lumpers vs. splitters) but I’m happy enough with what I’ve created so far that I’ve started using it with my own real data and have very pleased with the results. I’m still not sure if some information (e.g., census enumeration and household ID) is needed and am looking for records that cannot be cited using these templates. It has also considerably shortened the amount of time I need to spending citing my sources which also means I can spend more time doing the "fun stuff" (looking for new materials to document my ancestry).

Anyway, this is a work in progress. Constructive criticism is much appreciated! Thanks!

© 2013-2016 All rights reserved by Jeff La Marca, Ph.D.