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Family History Program Citation Guidelines

The importance of citations in the family history field.

The family history faculty frequently get asked why there isn’t one format for genealogy citations used in all classes. It’s not surprising that the professors’ answers to that question run deep and strong. In December 2020 we had a passionate discussion about citations and how we could better explain not just their purpose, but why there is no “plug-and-play” method for adequately citing sources. Students, like professionals across the field, can find that “citations provoke frustration and angst.”[1] Below is a summary of the discussion the faculty had; an attempt to explain why there are variations in citation style and how it is connected to professional standards and future career and volunteer opportunities.

Citation styles vary, but the content must be logical and consistent.
The professors are looking for the right elements, consistently organized.

The baseline for good citations is the importance of their content, consistently organized. The style can vary. For example, should the source be listed by the title of the record or the name of the person from the record? That’s a style choice. But both pieces of content must be in the citation. They also need to be logically organized – and that same logic must be followed throughout the citations and any family group record footnotes.

Students must learn the important elements of citation standards so that they can apply them in various ways, depending on the style or needs of their publisher/audience. For example, FamilySearch bases its citations on Evidence Explained (EE), but the citation they give for English baptism/birth is inadequate. It doesn’t list the denomination or the place name. So, despite the style being EE-compliant, the content isn’t sufficient.


  • Oneline databases, catalogues, and genealogy software (such as Legacy Family Tree, RootsMagic, Ancestral Quest) all provide templates or pre-packaged citations. Only on rare occassions are these complete, efficient, or adequate on their own. Almost invariably, they will need further refinement.
  • Be familiar with and consistently consult Evidence Explained and/or the Chicago Manual of Style.
  • In any single report/FGR/biography, make sure to follow the same style throughout. In other words, don't cite the census one way in one footnote, and in a different way in a subsequent footnote.

Purpose of adapting to different styles.
Even reigning citation royalty – Elizabeth Shown Mills – has written that citations “are not mathematical formulas, but a form of writing.”[2] Having that mindset can help identify citations as something that are crafted, not something merely copied and pasted.

We cite sources to accurately explain and share evidence with readers of our work, and to convince others that our work is accurate. There must be professional standards, but often the tools given to us are too time-consuming for us to use, not standardized across all genealogy programs, and often leave off vital information as indicated previously.

There is a standard format for sources citation in family history/genealogy. It is found in the Chicago Manual of Style and Evidence Explained. Beyond that, however, it is impossible to produce a fill-in-the-blanks citation template that covers all records students will encounter across all of their research projects. There’s a reason CMS and EE are such large books – they try to anticipate as many source types in as many settings as possible. There is no one way to condense all of that into a page or two.

Genealogical and historical citations follow the Chicago Manual of Style. When it comes to books and articles, it’s pretty easy to follow that pattern. However, the minutiae of genealogical citation often require interpreting and adapting CMS/EE according to the needs of the research, client, journal, or record type.

Why it is important for the researcher/research process:

Preparation for professional workplace
Confronting differing citation styles and standards is part of the discipline (both genealogy and history); not having a standard style among the professors isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Every client researcher, research company, publication/publisher, and industry company base their citations on CMS/EE but they have different house styles depending on their audience and their internal preferences. They also have remnants of previous cataloging/citation practices that may or may not have complied with CMS/EE. Family history faculty members can attest to this. They’ve never had something published that perfectly retained the style of citation they used in their initial submission. So, they aren’t trying to punish students, the professors are trying to prepare students for the realities of publishing/researching/writing in the field.

Analytical tool for weighing a source’s strength
More important than having one citation template merely to be filled in, students need to be able to think about whether the citation has all the important elements needed for the reader to not only identify the source, its whereabouts, and how to access it, but also to weigh its relative weight.

It is more important for a student to recognize the need for those details – partially for the reader to assess the source, but also as a reminder to the student to assess the reliability of the source – than for the student to, perhaps unthinkingly, plug citation elements into a template. The sometimes-tedious exercise of writing a full citation instills an intellectual discipline needed to properly analyze evidence. Recognizing a source is a 20th-century published transcript of a 17th-century source should immediately make the student want to find the original and to explain that the findings come from a compiled/derivative source, not an original source.

Citing a source is not sufficient to establish proof, however—it only indicates the place a source was found. The student must also be able to recognize, accurately explain, and analyze evidence and prove or disprove assertions.

Research tool for identifying a source’s location and where within the location the information can be found.
A U.S. example is the FamilySearch statewide indexes of marriage records which are kept at the county level. The online citations give the page number, but the marriages are recorded in a series of books in every county. For the citation to have any meaning, they have to indicate the county, book, and page. The page alone means nothing. The researcher needs think about the source and what is needed to find that source again—and to evaluate it.

Refines ability to work with archival materials and understand the original production as well as repository location of original (not digital or filmed) records. And to better understand how they are organized and accessed.
There are thousands of methods set up by cataloguers to cite original sources in record repositories just in the United States alone. We must include our modern online electronic repositories such as FamilySearch, Ancestry, FindMyPast, MyHeritage, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, every state library and state archive, historical societies, newspaper morgues, cemetery sexton records, etc.

Those citation formats were formulated at the time the repositories were organized and often updated at the time their records were digitized (and sometimes several iterations in between).

The reason different entities establish a “standard citation” formats are to let authors know which information elements they should include in their citations. In genealogy, cataloguers have already tailored the citation formats they want us to use that will align with their collections. The genealogy researcher should use that tailored citation and show its relevance to the research being done.

In the English church record example above, the FS-provided citation only gives the name of the index/database. That’s not enough to assess the value of the source, nor enough to find the original record. A complete citation identifies the denomination, the parish/location, and whether it comes from an original parish register, from a bishop’s transcripts (a copy made up to a year later), from a handwritten parish register transcript (often copied centuries after the original was made), or from a published transcript compiled by a 20th century author.

Why it is important for the reader/client/audience:

Conforms to the scientific method – can the author/research or someone in the future repeat the same research process and get the same results?
“Proof is the accumulation of acceptable evidence.” Genealogists get that evidence from records, and they convince others of their findings by recording “proof statements.” By teaching students to abstract the important items in each source and to explain why specific sources are attached, or detached, and why the student thinks the information provided is included, the program also prepares students to compose proof statements.[3]

Research tool for identifying a source’s location and where within the location the information can be found.
BCG teaches the who, what, where, when, wherein concept. Those can work very well with all of the citations students create, and then if they get something more unusual, it’s easier to take a few minutes and actually look that one up.

Also, a complete citation should give the person the ability to find the record onsite as well as online. For example, citing the online census database and giving entry information and an image number is useless on a different site or with the original. Citing an online marriage database with entry information and a marriage date is useless at the courthouse. It is best to cite the original record, then indicate that it was accessed online. An online citation to a database and image number is not wrong, it’s just not sufficiently helpful to evaluate the source.

[1] Paul K. Graham, "Overcoming Frustrations: Perspectives on Citations" On Board: Newsletter of the Board for the Certification of Genealogists, January 2021.

[2] Elizabeth Shown Mills to BCG Action Group mailing list, 13 Dec 2020.

[3] Board for the Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, (Orem: Ancestry Publishing, 2000).