How to Cite Genealogy Sources

A Simple Guide to Documenting Your Genealogy Research

Woman at table looking at genealogical tree
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You've been researching your family for a while and have managed to correctly assemble many pieces of the puzzle. You've entered the names and dates found in census records, land records, military records, etc. But can you tell me exactly where you found great, great-grandma's birth date? Was it on her tombstone? In a book at the library? In the 1860 census on

When researching your family it is very important that you keep track of every piece of information. This is important both as a means of verifying or "proving" your data and also as a way for you or other researchers to go back to that source when future research leads to information which conflicts with your original assumption. In genealogy research, any statement of fact, whether it is a birth date or an ancestor's surname, must carry its own individual source.

Source Citations in Genealogy Serve to...

  • Record the location of each piece of data. Did the birth date you have for your great-grandmother come from a published family history, a tombstone or a birth certificate? And where was that source found?
  • Provide context that might affect the evaluation and use of each piece of data. This includes evaluating both the document itself, and the information and evidence that you draw from it, for quality and potential bias. This is the third step of the Genealogical Proof Standard.
  • Allow you to easily revisit old evidence. There are many reasons you might want to backtrack during your research, including the discovery of new information, the realization you may have overlooked something, or the need to resolve conflicting evidence, the fourth step of the Genealogical Proof Standard.
  • Assist others in understanding and evaluating your research. If you were lucky enough to find a complete family tree for your grandfather on the Internet, wouldn't you want to know where the information came from?

In conjunction with research logs, proper source documentation also makes it much easier to pick up where you left off with your genealogy research after time spent focusing on other things. I know you've been in that wonderful spot before!

Types of Genealogy Sources

When evaluating and documenting the sources used to establish your family tree connections, it is important to understand the different types of sources.

  • Original vs. Derivative Sources: Referring to the provenance of the record, original sources are records that contribute written, oral, or visual information not derived — copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized — from another written or oral record. Derivative sources are, by their definition, records which have been derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from previously existing sources. Original sources usually, but not always, carry more weight than derivative sources.

Within each source, whether original or derivative, there are also two different types of information:

  • Primary vs. Secondary Information: Referring to the quality of the information contained within a particular record, primary information comes from records created at or near the time of an event with information contributed by a person who had reasonably close knowledge of the event. Secondary information, by contrast, is information found in records created a significant amount of time after an event occurred or contributed by a person who was not present at the event. Primary information usually, but not always, carries more weight than secondary information.

Two Rules for Great Source Citations

Rule One: Follow the Formula - While there is no scientific formula for citing every type of source, a good rule of thumb is to work from general to specific:

  1. Author - the one who authored the book, provided the interview, or wrote the letter
  2. Title - if it is an article, then the title of the article, followed by the title of the periodical
  3. Publication Details
    1. Place of publication, name of publisher and date of publication, written in parentheses (Place: Publisher, Date)
    2. Volume, issue and page numbers for periodicals
    3. Series and roll or item number for microfilm
  4. Where You Found It - repository name and location, Web site name and URL, cemetery name and location, etc.
  5. Specific Details - page number, entry number and date, date you viewed a Web site, etc.

Rule Two: Cite What You See - Whenever in your genealogical research you use a derivative source instead of the original version, you must take care to cite the index, database or book that you used, and NOT the actual source from which the derivative source was created. This is because derivative sources are several steps removed from the original, opening up the door for errors, including:

  • Handwriting interpretation errors
  • Microfilm viewing errors (out of focus, back side bleeding through, etc.)
  • Transcription errors (skipping lines, transposing numbers, etc.)
  • Typing errors, etc.
  • Purposeful changes

Even if a fellow researcher tells you that they found such and such a date in a marriage record, you should cite the researcher as the source of information (noting as well where they found the information). You can only accurately cite the marriage record if you have viewed it for yourself.

Article (Journal or Periodical)

Citations for periodicals should include the month/year or season, rather than issue number where possible.

  • Willis H. White, "Using Uncommon Sources to Illuminate Family History: a Long Island Tuthill Example." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91 (March 2003), 15-18.

Bible Record

Citations for information found in a family bible should always include the information on publication and its provenance (names and dates for people who have owned the bible)

  • 1. Family data, Dempsey Owens Family Bible, The Holy Bible (American Bible Society, New York 1853); original owned in 2001 by William L. Owens (put mailing address here). The Dempsey Owens Family Bible passed from Dempsey to his son James Turner Owens, to his son Dempsey Raymond Owens, to his son William L. Owens.

Birth & Death Certificates

When citing a birth or death record, record 1) type of record and name(s) of the individual(s), 2) the file or certificate number (or book and page) and 3) name and location of the office in which it is filed (or the repository in which the copy was found - e.g. archives).

1. Certified transcription of birth certificate for Ernest Rene Ollivon, Act no. 7145 (1989), Maison Maire, Crespières, Yvelines, France.

2. Henrietta Crisp, birth certificate [long form] no. 124-83-001153 (1983), North Carolina Division of Health Services - Vital Records Branch, Raleigh.

3. Elmer Koth entry, Gladwin County Deaths, Liber 2: 312, no 96; County Clerk's Office, Gladwin, Michigan.

From an online index:
4. Ohio Death Certificate Index 1913-1937, The Ohio Historical Society, online <>, Death certificate entry for Eveline Powell downloaded 12 March 2001.

From a FHL microfilm:
5. Yvonne Lemarie entry, Crespières naissances, mariages, déecs 1893-1899, microfilm no. 2067622 Item 6, frame 58, Family History Library [FHL], Salt Lake City, Utah.


Published sources, including books, should list author (or compiler or editor) first, followed by the title, publisher, publication place and date, and page numbers. List multiple authors in the same order as shown on the title page unless there are more than three authors, in which case, include only the first author followed by et al. Citations for one volume of a multivolume work should include the number of the volume used.

  • Margaret M. Hoffman, compiler, The Granville District of North Carolina, 1748-1763, 5 volumes (Weldon, North Carolina: Roanoke News Company, 1986), 1:25, no.238.*The number in this example, indicates a specific numbered entry on the page.

Census Record

While it is tempting to abbreviate many items in a census citation, especially state name and county designations, it is best to spell out all words in the first citation to a particular census. Abbreviations which seem standard to you (e.g. Co. for county), may not be recognized by all researchers.

  • 1920 U.S. census, population schedule, Brookline, Norfolk County, Massachusetts, Enumeration District [ED] 174, sheet 8, dwelling 110, family 172, Frederick A. Kerry household; National Archives microfilm publication T625, roll 721; digital image,, (accessed 28 July 2004).

Family Group Sheet

When you use data which has been received from others, you should always document the data as you receive it and not use the original sources cited by the other researcher. You haven't personally checked these resources, therefore they are not your source.

  • 1. Jane Doe, "William M. Crisp - Lucy Cherry family group sheet," supplied 2 February 2001 by Doe (put mailing address here).


Be sure to document who you interviewed and when, as well as who is in possession of the interview records (transcripts, tape recordings, etc.)

  • 1. Interview with Charles Bishop Koth (interviewees address here), by Kimberly Thomas Powell, 7 August 1999. Transcript held in 2001 by Powell (put mailing address here). [You can include an annotation or personal comment here.]


It is much more accurate to quote a specific letter as a source, rather than just citing the individual who wrote the letter as your source.

  • 1. Letter from Patrick Owens (put mailing address here) to Kimberly Thomas Powell, 9 January 1998; held in 2001 by Powell (put mailing address here). [You can include an annotation or personal comment here.]

Marriage License or Certificate

Marriage records follow the same general format as birth and death records.

  • 1. Marriage license and certificate for Dempsey Owens and Lydia Ann Everett, Edgecombe County Marriage Book 2:36, County Clerk's Office, Tarboro, North Carolina.2. George Frederick Powell and Rosina Jane Powell, Bristol Marriage Register 1:157, Bristol Register Office, Bristol, Glouchestershire, England.

Newspaper Clipping 

Be sure to include the name of the newspaper, the place and date of publication, the page and column number.

  • 1. Henry Charles Koth - Mary Elizabeth Ihly marriage announcement, Southern Baptist newspaper, Charleston, South Carolina, 16 June, 1860, page 8, column 1.


This general citation format applies to information received from Internet databases as well as online transcriptions and indexes (i.e. if you find a cemetery transcription on the Internet, you would enter it as a Web site source. You would not include the cemetery as your source unless you had visited personally).

  • 1. Wuerttemberg Emigration Index,, online <>, Koth data downloaded 12 January 2000.
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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "How to Cite Genealogy Sources." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). How to Cite Genealogy Sources. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "How to Cite Genealogy Sources." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).