New To Genealogy? Cite Your Sources! And, Be Organized!
By Judith Florian
Grandmother, the late Ruth Lane McGary, used to repeatedly tell me one major point while
teaching me the beginnings of doing genealogy. "Cite your sources! They’re important!"
she’d say before we got off the telephone each time. But in the first year,
my inexperience or my excitement about finding some new fact would cause me to sometimes go
home without writing down the most important information: WHERE did I get this?
My oversight caused me to have to back-track many times to retrieve what I needed in a
second visit. I even had to call an out-of-state library once to describe what was on
the three Xeroxed pages I had made, and ask if they could possibly find which book I had
copied. Luckily, it was a very small library, and the citation was easy to obtain. But,
20 years after learning genealogy from my patient grandmother’s instructions, I still
have several pages I have never been able to re-find the book I had used to make my
then also, I often used whatever paper that was on hand, of varying shapes and sizes, from
scrap paper at the library, to spiral bound notebooks that also held my school notes, to
tablets where pages ripped out easily. And, I didn’t label the pages! I just started
writing from sources:
"John Lane, page 54.
John A. Lane, page 60,
J. Lane, page 94."
Or, in one instance I had 10 hand-written papers of lists of names from one source, but I
never numbered or labeled my pages, and they got mixed-up by the time I sat down at home
to review what I had. How much easier I could have made this on myself, if I had just
slowed down to number my pages and clearly identify the source of the information.
In those early months, one day I’d be at the courthouse, and the next day I’d be in
the library, so I could not remember always where I had found some facts!
I could have saved myself time and energy if I had been more organized, and if I had cited
my sources clearly.
there are many blank forms to help you in your research. You can obtain many of these online,
free, from many genealogy sites. (On a search engine, type in "genealogy + blank forms"
and you will find tons of sites. You can download the forms for free and print an endless
number of copies.) But, whether you use forms or notebooks, you can help yourself a great
deal by developing a system of noting what you find.
First, for example, put the
location of your search in the same place on every paper or form you use (example: top
left corner, write Washington Co. Courthouse, Washington, Pa., Recorder of Deeds Office,
today’s date). Next, you can label the top middle of the page with the type of records you
are using, such as: Deeds for John Lane. Then, make columns across the page for
important information and citation facts. Yours might look like this: Deed Index:
L-1840-1850, John Lane, Recorded Jan 1, 1844, page 10. Underneath, maybe you want
to list the neighbor names given in the deed, or maybe you want to write out the land
description, which is always found in a Deed with the words "Beginning at...."
way you set up your papers, just be sure to write as much information as you can so that you
(1) can later identify where you found the information and (2) are sure you recorded all
important information as possible from that record. Even if you decide to pay for Xerox
copies, you will still need to develop a way to make a handwritten "short form" of the
information. First, you will want to keep your Xerox copy clean, without making marks on it.
And, second, most documents contain language and wording that gets in the way when trying to
sort out what exactly you got in your recent "find." You will want to make notes, but you
must label your notes so that you can look at it again months from now and still understand
what information had been found, and where.
always remember to read the documents several times. I used to get so excited
the first time I found an item that I would miss something else that was equally
important in that same source! Plus, it gets easier to read the handwriting in
old documents the more times you read one or more documents of the same time period.
The more documents you read, you will also come to understand the distinct parts of a
document, since each one is set up basically using the same format. A deed starts off
telling you when this land was sold, to whom, from whom, where the land lies,
it's "mets and bounds" (boundaries), who are the
neighbors, what was the "consideration" (how much was paid), date it was legally recorded,
and witnesses. This is followed by a statement that the Recorder of Deeds has read
and compared the original deed to the copy he made into the Deed Book. Wills have
a different format, but each generally follows a general pattern of construction.
people have the most trouble with correctly citing sources. Often a new genealogist will
write too little information for a source, which makes it confusing to later know what the
source was. For example, someone might write: "Washington Co. History" but nothing else,
not realizing there are several often-used county histories for Washington Co.
If you can’t recall from your high school days what is part of a "citation"
(don’t worry, many of us don’t remember either), ask the librarian to tell you what to
include, and show you where to find the pieces you need from a source. Every book,
magazine, or newspaper has certain things that make a citation, and a particular place
inside the item to find these parts. Parts for a book citation include: Title of book,
author, publisher, publisher’s location, publishing date, and page numbers you have used.
For magazines, a citation also needs name of the magazine and title of article, author or
editor, along with volume and issue number, and the date and page numbers.
If in doubt of what to copy to create your citation, ask someone.
There are also excellent books available that are specifically about writing genealogy
very good tip to remember also is that in genealogy, negative results are important
to your research! What are "negative results" in research? When you check any source
that does NOT have data about your family, this is a negative result. Make sure you
complete one page for each "negative" so that you will know what sources you have
already searched. Negative results can also be a clue to search in a different
direction, or even to search in a totally different location. Some of my families
lived in both Washington and Greene Counties, so when I don’t find a record in
one county, I know I need to search other counties, or even far beyond the area I had
just very basic organization, and remembering to "cite your source," your first trips out
to do research will definitely be more pleasurable and beneficial. You will return home,
surprised at how much you were able to accomplish! You will be able to review your
materials over months or years, and always know where you found something, and what –
exactly – you had found. Each complete record you make of your current research will
bring you closer to finding more information to fill in precious family history. Just
let your mantra be: "Cite your sources!"