A Better Way to Cite Online Sources–Reprise

Thursday, 10 Feb 2011 | by Mark Tucker

Back in April 2009, I created a video that showed my dream for how citing online sources should be done (see blog post).  It would be a partnership between online record repositories and desktop genealogy software.  I created a prototype close enough to the real thing to prove that it could be done and to help others visualize how it would work.  I even created a survey to get feedback from others. 

Over 300 people responded to the survey and at the end of the trial period I sent a copy of the results to all participants that provided an e-mail. I planned on blogging about the results but got discouraged at the time.

Two events have happened this week to get me thinking about this again. The first was a comment on my blog by Bruce. He has a website for his personal family history and wanted to know how to go about setting up the site to do citations like the video demonstrated. It saddened me to tell him that it is not possible to do this yet without cooperation from the desktop genealogy software vendors. The second was a direct message via Twitter from fellow genealogy software innovator, Dean.  He contacted me to say that my blog was mentioned in a discussion today at RootsTech on how to handle sources.

Maybe it is time for me to publish the survey results from 2 years ago.

What type of people responded to the survey? People like you and me.  The majority are non-professional researches (plain Jane/Joe family historians)  many of whom belong to local genealogy societies.  Some have visited courthouses, the National Archives, or the Family History Library, but almost all had done research on the internet in the last week. They used sites like Ancestry, Footnote, and FamilySearch and desktop software like RootsMagic, Legacy, Family Tree Maker, and PAF.  Over 99% thought citing sources was important but 75% thought it was difficult to do it.  Over 90% thought that there should be one standard citation guide and 57% were using “Evidence Explained.” When asked if they were interested in the solution provided in the video, 93% said they were interested.

There are more details and nuggets in the survey results.

Maybe we can explore them more in future posts.


  1. Mark, Please do write more about our citation needs! This is exactly the input that developers need to hear. I can’t remember if I participated in your survey, but I am very interested in the results.

    As a former high school English teacher, I am well acquainted with the difficulties in propeer source citation. For many students… And I suspect many genealogists… The process seems complicated and confusing. ESM style IS complicated, but then, so are the forms of sources we consult. One good thing that has come out is the interest and “fuss” over citation style… It shows that family historians are accepting the need to cite at all.

    I’m looking forward to reading more on this subject on your blog.

    Comment by Denies Levenick — 11 Feb 2011 @ 8:22 am

  2. I remember the original discussion in interviews you gave. I’m glad you have resurrected this topic as it’s just as pertinent now and maybe even more so after the recent Roots Tech conference.

    Looking forward to hearing more.

    Comment by Michelle Goodrum — 23 Feb 2011 @ 11:36 pm

  3. I just came across your video, Mark, via a ‘citation’ from someone on a RootsMagic forum. I am using RM4 on a family tree of about 1000 names that I started about three years ago and took up again this January. Most of my research to date has been through online sources, notably Ancestry, FamilySearch, and a database provided by the Counsel of Bah-Rhin, Alsace, France. My original research was done using online. I have FTM 2011 now, but I am doing my work in RM4. I have kept my subscription to

    I really want to source all of my data, but, good grief, it is so complex. I have a copy of Evidence Explained out of our local library. I have read much material on sourcing from RM help files and forums, but the prospect of sourcing all of my entries is intimidating. Let me give one example. I have many entries with multiple census links for different facts. When I downloaded my work as a GEDCOM, freeform citations to the references came along. OK, I can live with those. The RM folks recommend against trying to convert them to appropriate templates. But what about my current research? One of the reasons I continue to pay Ancestry is for access to their complete collection of census images. The WebSearch feature of RM4 gives me convenient access to those images, but I don’t see how to get citation information into RM4 short of manually copying it. Maybe I should maintain a catchall online tree into which I could stick all of my persons of interest without attempting to construct a proper tree. Then I could download that bogus tree’s GEDCOM, open it in RM4, and do a manual merge. Oh yes, I would also need to capture the relevant census images and download them. Then I would need to associate each source citation with its corresponding image.

    ARRRGH! There has to be a better way. Until the genealogical messiah comes and sets our little world aright, does anyone have some half-measures that lighten the load?

    Comment by Stan Armstrong — 17 Mar 2011 @ 9:50 am

  4. Stan,

    I can tell that you are very frustrated. So are many other people.

    Some are frustrated that when they started doing research nobody told them they needed to cite sources. Now they have a lot of information but no citations.
    Others are frustrated because their online sources don’t include citations that follow Evidence Explained and they are stuck with the provided citations or need to manually edit them.

    I think citing sources is very important for you and others that will benefit from your work. I have no quick fixes at the moment. I am torn as to what I should recommend. Are the citations “good enough” for you to find the sources again? If you think so, maybe spend your time researching and analyzing instead and hope that Ancestry improves their citations in the future.

    Comment by Mark Tucker — 17 Mar 2011 @ 10:23 am

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