Learn Genealogy – Easy-Breezy Source Citations

Here’s a great way to remember how to write good quality source citations without stress.

If you want just get the information down without the formality of a proper source citation, think of the Five “W’s” of journalism… Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.  But I’ve got my own take on this, to help remember everything easily. I call it the Six W’s and How… Genealogy Source Citations Will Work for You!  It’s a play on words, get it?

Six W’s and How Genealogy Source Citations Will Work for You!

Ready? Here it is…  Who, What , Where, When and When, Why and How.  That’s right, two When’s!  Say that ten times and you’ll have it.  Who, What , Where, When and When, Why and How.  It’s a tongue twister, but you’ll remember it. Learn this technique and you’ll have the details of the source citations professionals use.

  • Who – (Who created this item, statement, book, document, photo, etc.? It might be a probate court, the state or federal government, a testimonial by a person, county recorder’s office, or an author of a book. Who created it?
  • What – (What is it? Description or title, in detail, of the document, object, photo, testimonial, and publisher information! )
  • Where – (Where did you find it? Archive, library, person’s full name, etc.) Be very specific so that a stranger can retrace your steps. This is a physical address, email, online repository with address. It could be all of the following…  place, room, shelf, book, chapter, page, paragraph and line… if that’s what it takes for an stranger to find it again.

A note about web addresses:  Use them, BUT ALSO give all information about it’s location again in written form, so that one can find it without a web address. This might be an online archive, with record group, section, image number, line number and persons name in the document or all of the above.  Over time, websites die or change and if you have a web address, it will be useless a few years from now.  We’ll talk more about that in other lessons.

  • When and When – (When this item was created? and When you located it?)  Make sense?  Two When’s!
  • Why – (Why does this matter, as it relates to your target question or ancestor?) Perhaps this evidence is the item that ties two brothers together, or proves someone bought some land, or directly or indirectly answers the question you’ve been researching.
  • How – (How can you access this again if needed? Is it online, only available at the archives, in grandma’s possession?)  You might have covered this in the “Where” question above, but give it some thought.  You may have found it in grandma’s attic, but brought it home and filed it in your own archives.  You’ll need to document both, where you found it and how can you find it again? Especially, if it’s location has changed.

You’ll need to do this exercise for everything you find. If you do, you’re well on your way to writing real proper “Elizabeth Shown Mills style” source citations like she teaches in her book Evidence Explained and on her website EvidenceExplained.com.  She and her methods are the gold standard of genealogical source citations.  These Six W’s and How… are an early stepping stone to understanding her artful source citation methods.

In the interest of full disclosure, this link for Mills book is an affiliate marketing link that helps support this website. However, using this link will not cost you anymore.  I will never-ever recommend a book I don’t believe in.  Please know that your trust in me is worth more than a small commission.  However, should you use this link, you’ll help support my efforts to bring quality genealogy education to you and others.  Thanks for your support.

At the end of the day, can anyone find your source again?  If so, kudos!  You’ve got this! I’m curious, please answer the poll below.

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Learn Genealogy – Research Notes


Here is another tip and a good habit to get into right from the beginning of your genealogical journey.  Keeping great research notes will prevent you from repeating your research and will keep you moving further faster to answering your research questions!  That’s worth repeating! Rinse and repeat.

Keep your Research Notes in chronological order, it will result in your ancestors timeline . This document is an ever changing and developing document while you research.  It will likely be the most important document in your files because it contains a person’s lifelong timeline, all the facts, and evidence found.  It is the culmination of all your hard work.

The Research Notes contain only the facts and sources of positive findings for a specific ancestor.  It is not all of the places you’ve looked.  That’s a Research Log.  For your Research Notes, as an example, it might start at the top with a title like…

John Doe, born 1 January 1889 – Research Notes”

Then continue on with vital statistics and information in chronological order… birth, christening, marriage, children born, land purchase…, newspaper articles, death, obituary, burial, etc. all starting with a date, then the event.  For example:

“1 January 1889, Birth – John James Doe was born in Any Town (city and county), Any State, USA.  This birth date was confirmed on his military pension file and the 1900 US Census.” (Add a footnote reference after each fact.)

Footnotes to Add Source at Bottom of Page

I use footnotes to cite my sources for every fact within my research notes.  This way, if I write a report for a client I can cut and paste most of the details from my research notes into my reports and the source citations will follow. The Source Citation is information about where the evidence was found for every fact, such as an interview, book, website etc.  You want all the details in a source citation, so much so, that someone else could find the exact information about that fact.

If you write in Word, source citations can be added as Footnotes by using the Reference tab on the top of the page.  This way, as you add to your research notes, the source citation numbers update automatically without you having to renumber your notes and citations to make sure they correspond.  This is done automatically for you no matter how many times you update or insert within your document.  In my opinion, this is a must-have item when writing research notes.  Without it, your sources will likely get lost or mixed up with other facts.

Additionally, by using footnotes, your research notes, it’s easier to read your notes fluidly, without having to wade through all the of source information. You can read the ancestors timeline logically to stay focused on the subject.

One last comment about footnotes. Footnotes will stay on the same page as your referenced notes, as opposed to Endnotes.  Endnotes will collectively be stacked at the end of document.  I don’t care for Endnotes in my, Research Notes, or any of my research reports, because if someone copies just one page of a multi-page document, then the source information is not included with the copied page. Instead it’s on the last pages of the document and thus the one copied page does not contain the source information. For genealogist, footnotes are what you want.  However, if in the future you wish to change all of your Footnotes to Endnotes, this can be done easily in Word without retyping everything.

To learn how to write proper source citations for scholarly works, you’ll want a copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills book called “Evidence Explained”.  In it, she covers every type of source citation needed for genealogists.

Some additional comments:

Research Notes and Research Logs are filed similarly. The difference between these documents is the Research Notes contain the evidence and facts found and the Research Log contains all the places searched for the answer to the research questions, regardless of a positive or negative outcome of the search.  We’ll talk about Research Questions and Research Logs in later posts.

If you can, write your Research Notes at the time of your research findings (right there in the library, archive, etc.), then you’re likely to not repeat the same work over and over again.

I type my Research Notes in Microsoft Word.  Save them with the same filing system discussed in the post “Good Filing Habits from the Start!”  For example, save Research Notes for John James DOE, born 1889, in the top level DOE folder, “DOE\DOE John James b 1889”.  For the file name of the document add a “1” in front of it so it always is at the top of the list of documents (when sorted by name) within the folder.  Your research notes are the one document in each folder you’ll use the most, so you’ll want it handy.  For example,  ” 1 DOE John James b 1889 – Research Notes.”

By adding a birth year, separates him from another person with the same name (if known) and tells us these are Research Notes all in the file name. This also helps when searching for files.  I only keep one version of this document and constantly update it with new findings (although my back up system is keeping my documents backed up continuously).

Research Notes are the backbone of your research.  It is the one document you want clean, clear and up to date every time you work on an ancestor.  It is the chronology, the facts, the sources, the conclusions of what you’ve discovered.  In some cases, it may be the only culmination of a person’s life.  Honor your ancestors with great Research Notes about them.  They will become the basis for your next book.

If you found this helpful…

Comments are welcome below.  Tell us how you keep research notes in the reply area below.

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Learn Genealogy – Fact or Fiction… Facts vs. Evidence vs. Sources

Let’s face facts! It’s Fact from Fiction.  Okay the puns are endless here.

Let’s get it straight… the terminology that is Fact from Fiction.

As genealogists we’re part reporter, part historian, and part detective.  So it’s logical that we use the same terms used in law enforcement, journalism and historical authors.


The Fact is information found within Evidence.  Like a birth date on a birth certificate.

The Evidence is the item found, such as the birth certificate itself.

The Source is where you found the Evidence.  For example, the birth certificate may have come from the county courthouse.  So you would want to detail where you found the Evidence to the point that another person could find it based on your Source Citation.

So without Evidence, do you have a Fact or is it Fiction?

Fact from Fiction

Be careful about what you call a “Fact.”  “Facts” need to be proven to truly call them factual.   Family lore is likely not fact, until proven. However, a person’s testimony is Evidence, but not always factual. Thus, if grandpa said something, you’ll need to support that with the Facts found in other Evidence.

So what do you do with the data you’ve found, that is not yet proven?  You can use language of probabilities in your reporting.  For example, “Jane Doe was likely born in West Virginia, possibly before 1800, as she was not listed with her parents in the xyz county of West Virginia in the 1800 census.”  Thus, you’re not stating her birth place or potential birth date as fact, but you are asserting your assessment of the Evidence you’ve found in the 1800 Census. Of course, you’re going to cite your Source (where you found that 1800 census).  From your assessment will lead to a good research question for your next task.  More on research questions in a later post.

Got it?

Facts are typically found in Evidence.  The Evidence is the item stating the Facts…  and the Source is where you found the Evidence.  You’ll want to ask yourself, is it Fact or Fiction?

To learn to write good source citations, you’ll need Elizabeth Shown Mills book Evidence Explained.

Full disclosure, this is an affiliate marketing link for which I could get a tiny commission.  However, I will never-ever recommend a book that I don’t believe in wholeheartedly. This link will not cost you any extra, but does help to support this website and the YouTube channels.  Thanks for your support.

Comments are welcome below.

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Learn Genealogy – Organized with Charts and Software

Stay Organized with Charts and Software

Ancestor Chart from FTM for web blog
Ancestral Chart – Family Tree Maker Software

Right from the start you’re going to want to start visualizing your family tree and understanding how the family groups are organized.  For some of you, this may be basic, but for the true beginner, understanding the differences in charts and formats will be welcome information.

Traditional genealogist (before computers) used several forms and formats to keep the family organized.  Those same organizational ideas have carried forward today in the software and online trees.

The first two discussed below show the links between each generation, while the third shows each immediate family unit.  I’ve provided links to free copies from the National Archives, FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com below.

First was the Ancestral Family Tree Chart.  This is sometimes referred to as a Pedigree. This chart starts with one person and shows the links between the parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on in the direct ancestral line.  The drawback to this chart is that is doesn’t show all children of each couple, but only each child in the direct lineage.

Next is the Descendants Tree Chart. This chart starts with an ancestor and grows down toward present day and does show all known children of each couple.  The drawback here is that it is hard to show all descendants on one page.  There really is no way to chart this on paper without taping multiple pages together.  I have taped together these pages and pinned it on my wall for easy reference, but computers are really easier.

Family Group Sheet on Ancestry
Family Group Sheet Free on Ancestry.com

The Family Group Sheet is not a tree at all but a detailed sheet showing a Father, Mother and all their children.  Additionally, this group sheet shows birth, marriage, and death information with dates and places.  You’ll see a similar layout in the various genealogy software and online programs.  You’ll want this information for each family group.

While all these charts and or forms have been replaced with software, its good practice to have a few of these forms with you when visiting with relatives and asking about family information.  They help show where your gaps are in your research and family will often help fill in the holes they see you’re missing. Take multiple blank family group sheets, since you’ll likely be talking about several family groups.  You’ll need one for every couple or immediate family grouping.

Alternatively, you can print out the same trees and family group sheets from your software and ask family to help fill in the gaps.  When visiting family, I often bring my laptop and fill in the blanks right in the software as I’m talking with family.  This saves a step, but as I always say, when working on computers, “save early – save often” AND cite your source as you enter information.

Using a genealogical software program will save you a TON of time.  You have at least two good options online with services  (like FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com) or use a software that is located on your computer.  I use both.  FamilySearch (a free service) is a public tree that anyone can modify and at Ancestry (free and subscription options) it is your own tree that only you or those you allow can modify.

I use many services and one primary software on my computer. Personally, I use Family Tree Maker because it links with my Ancestry account.  However, there are several good programs out there.  The advantage to having software on your computer is additional functionality that the online versions don’t provide.

No matter what you choose, you can export and import your family tree from one service or software to another using a Gedcom file.  Keep in mind that a Gedcom transfer is not a constant link and will not continually update.  It’s only intended to bring the basic data from one program to another once, so you don’t have to retype all of that data when switching software or services.

Details on the pluses and minuses to these services will be discussed in a later lesson.

Copies of free charts are available at:

The National Archives



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Learn Genealogy – Are You New To Genealogy?


I love sharing my nearly four decades of experience in genealogy, but I love learning too.  What’s great about genealogists, is their willingness to share.  In the “How To…” column, is where I’ll share my knowledge with you and some of what you share with me. Together we’ll learn from each other.  Okay… let’s face it, the entire website is designed for learning, not just the “How To…” section.

However, it’s in the “How To… section that is devoted to general genealogy learning, not just for North Carolina.  I’ll post, regularly, lots of videos and blogs on how to go “further, faster, with your family history research”.  Let’s Kick Start your research right now with the first post in the “HOW TO…” do genealogy page… and it’s free!

And please… feel free to share your insights in the comments sections!  Together we learn from each other.
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