The genealogical blogosphere erupts from time to time with fierce arguments over the need for, and character of source citations for genealogy information. Let’s look at this issue from a practical point of view. To know how best to deal with citations, we need to consider what their purpose is.
First, sources serve as a reminder of where we found particular information. In the future, if we need to go back to the same source for related information or some detail we didn’t record, we will know where to look. Or if somebody asks us how we know a particular detail, we will have a source to give them.
Second, knowing the source helps us evaluate the probable veracity of the information. When conflicting evidence turns up (note I when when, not if), we need to consider the sources involved if we are to have any hope of showing that one version is more reliable than the other.
Third, a source citation will remind us of the content of that particular resource, and so help us find new information when we encounter another ancestor who might be recorded in the same resource. Or it may remind us we have a copy of a particular document that could shed light on another research problem.
Fourth, the source citation can help us avoid duplication of effort — we know we already have the information from that particular resource, and so do not need to search it again for the same subject.
Fifth, and diametrically opposed to #4, we can use the citation to help us go back to that same resource for a second look, if we think we may have missed something. As we gain experience we learn to get more out of each source, so sometimes a second-look is beneficial.
Those are just the benefits to the person making the citation. When others look at our work, they may derive all the same benefits out of the source citations, plus learn about resources they may not have known about. Whenever you run into a brick wall, look for well-done genealogies containing other persons living in the same vicinity as your ancestor — look through the sources cited to see if there are records you didn’t know about.
Or look for other citations to the sources you already have cited yourself. If the citation is specific enough, or the resource covers only a limited time period or area, you will find others searching your own family, or those searching neighboring families, and their other source citations may lead you to more information. Or you may benefit from contacting those other searchers, with whom you share an interest.
I think these benefits pretty well lay to rest any doubt about the need for source citations. In my next post I’ll take a look at the question of how those citations should be formatted.