Most family historians think of source citations as a sort of bread-crumb trail, designed to help us trace our steps back to where we uncovered documents and tidbits of information.
They do serve that valuable purpose, but they also play a bigger role in our genealogical quests. Used correctly, they should play a critical role in helping us assess the reliability and accuracy of the information to which they are attached.
A good source citation will answer these questions about a document:
Analyzing a few citations shows how these questions are applied and why we care.
Example 1: Hiawasee Reservoir Final Report, Grave Removal Operations of 1938, Resource Group COU, Cemetery Relocation Records 1933-1985, Box 50, Hiawassee Project, Grave Relocation Permits. National Archives Southeast Region, Morrow, Georgia. Since there is no mention of this being a transcript or microfilmed copy of these grave relocation permits, a reader should know immediately that the researcher used the original records at the National Archives regional branch. This means their accuracy is more likely to be correct than if the researcher took the information from a book someone had written about these grave permits.
Example 2: Will of Elizabeth James, Cherokee County Probate Court, Will Book A: 435, Murphy, North Carolina. An inexperienced reader might look at this and think the researcher had looked at the actual original will. But experience should teach us that wills written into will books are clerks' copies of the original wills. Had the citation said the will came from the loose papers in a probate or estate file at the probate court, the researcher would surmise the researcher had viewed the original will. With a clerk's copy it is always possible that errors slipped into the transcribing — each researcher should strive, therefore, to find the loose paper will.
Example 3: Katrina C. Hickman firstname.lastname@example.org email to George Hickman (email@example.com), dated 10 September 1997. She states that the source of her information is Lafayette Hickman's granddaughter, Mae Hickman. Red flags should start waving when we see that the source of a piece of information is from an email with a source probably multiple times removed from the event under discussion. It is a signal to the reader that additional research should be used to shore up the hearsay relayed through this source.
Example 4: Believed to be personal papers of Harvey Deveraux James , in his own handwriting. Dorothy Hootman took these papers from a trunk at the home of her mother Eula James O'Neal following Eula's death in 1972. Eula was the daughter of Harvey James and on numerous occasions had told Dorothy she had some of her father's personal papers in the trunk. In 1999 Dorothy gave these papers to Sharon Tate Moody and they are in her possession at 2019 Grantham Greens Drive, Sun City Center, FL at the writing of this report. All of us love to inherit old papers whose mysteries we can unravel. It is important that we share as much as possible about how we came to have the papers in which we found information. Give your readers all they need to be able to assess the validity of the details in the documents from Grandma's trunk.
Understanding and writing good source citations is an art and a science. It is far too complicated to cover all the implications and possibilities in a newspaper column.
The definitive authority on this subject is Elizabeth Shown Mills. Her 885-page book "Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace" (Genealogical Publishing Company Inc., $59.95) is available on Amazon.com for $48.63. Those serious about producing good family historical document should purchase, read and use this book religiously.