Sourcing sources.

+11 votes
Not wishing to appear picky, but I have a question.

We are asked to quote our sources, and I note that quite often a particular author, and their work, is given. This is fine, except that those books may not be available to the average researcher, or they may be far too expensive. I am wondering if the author has listed their sources, so that we may check them ourselves. Perhaps it would be clearer if the original source was given, where possible, rather than a second hand interpretation.
in The Tree House by Tim Perry G2G6 Mach 3 (33.4k points)
I try to find the original source, but many times those are inaccessible.  If I can’t get to them I try to source it as “Author, book, page, citing (original source).”  I think that’s the best most of us can do, but I agree that the original source should always be included.

> Found page on how to manage sources Help:Sources and it is sparse on citing a book 

Anderson, Robert Charles. The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633. Boston, MA: NEHGS, 1995. Volume I, pp 126-130.

There are a couple wikitree Space pages that have been created that have online books.

Sources of Family Genealogies - based on surname

Sources by Location

Most of the books have online locations, as well as sample citations that can be used.  

Both of these pages can easily be revised to add new sources found into these 'index' pages if someone creates a space page for a book that is not included. 

7 Answers

+11 votes
The first purpose of the source is to tell the reader where the writer obtained the information.  Before the internet, only hard copies were available -- of copies of books held in many libraries and original records which might be located in one place only.  Many of us developed personal hard copy libraries.  If I give a hard-copy book as a source, and you don't have access to the hard-copy book yourself, your alternative is to trust that I'm not lying -- or to find a copy yourself.  This does make things harder, because sometimes I might mis-quote, or I might quote only half the information and the clue you're looking for is in the other half.  

Today with the internet, an amazing quantity of material is available digitally.  I'm discovering that many of the books in my personal library of Maryland sources are now avialable on the internet archive.  That makes them accessible to more people.

Quoting the original primary documents is of course always preferable, and with the internet it is amazing to discover more and more of these available.  

Genealogy is always a "work in progress" and most profiles, no matter how well done, always have room to fine tune the sources that document them.
by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (385k points)
With all due respect, Jack Day, and no slight intended, trusting another's word is fraught with danger, they could easily be mistaken, we are all capable of that.

In order to amass the library of all these publications would require very considerable wealth, and as many are published hundreds of years after the event in question, errors are inevitable. The temptation for the author to add their opinion, rather than the facts, must be great.

Well, Tim, those thoughts move us into theology and estimating the extent to which people will sin when given the opportunity to do so!  My experience is that most genealogists are ethical people with a passion for the truth, and generally what is posted will be true.

But sin does exist, and as a Project Coordinator for the Disproven Existence Project, I know well the havoc that is created when someone comes along with the intent to deceive.  It does exist, and then others of us have to do the repair work.  See Gustave Anjou Fraud.

So when a controversy arises concerning a profile -- one person says "A" and another person says, "no, it's B" -- then the bar is higher and the extra effort to dig and find primary records -- even ones unavailable on the internet -- becomes mandatory.  

And all of us should be using the most reliable sources that we find available to us.  And we should be posting links to the material that is available on the internet.

But the minute that we find ourselves distrusting every researcher's work and have to research every single fact ourselves, then the whole point of a collaborative site like WikiTree disappears.  

I am not questioning the sincerity of intent, for the majority, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I recall posting a question concerning Heralds Vistitations, and was told they are of little value, because the writer was paid. Modern authors also expect payment, so it is essentially no different. Yet greater weight seems to be given to something written long after the date in question, compared to detail noted at the time.

Does it all come down to what people wish to believe ? Then what of truth ?

Re visitations. I found 2 threads that I remember and contributed to.


I answered on both threads and looking back, I believe both my answers and those from others on the second thread  are  far more nuanced than you suggest.

+6 votes
We're asked to cite our sources, those that we've seen. Beyond that we cannot in honesty go. Citing an expensive source because someone else said they'd seen it probably over validates it.
by C. Mackinnon G2G6 Pilot (291k points)
You seem to echo my opinions, C. Mackinnon. Just because something appears in print, does not necessarily prove it to be factual. I was recently quoted over £1,000 for one such book, with no assurances that I could find the data I seek therein should I buy it. I have hundreds of books, many with conflicting views, so, which one is correct, if any of them. Mentioning the internet is a poor example, as we know that is overladen with mis-information, and the danger here is that folk copy it, pass it on, and before you know they are arguing that is must be true, because "everybody says so". Unless there is a better means to verify details, not relying upon 'expert authors', it can easily become a conspiracy of lies.
+5 votes
Tim, I agree with you. It’s always helpful to add the source of an author’s information if they’ve included it. (And at least the page number).

Also, for publications not online I’ve had some success getting access through inter library loan, requesting lookups or just asking the person who posted the info to send me a copy/photo of the pages.
by M Cole G2G6 Mach 4 (45.5k points)
Yes, inter library loan would be a great help, however, due to the pandemic they have suspended that service until further notice.
It’s also possible to take a photo of the page from the source which one is referencing, if it’s in one’s personal library, and upload it as an image to the profile one is sourcing. I do this most often with sources in my possession that are very hard to find without visiting the original repository (rare typescripts, defunct newsletters, etc.).

Though my local archives, in common with many others in the UK  only allows photography with a licence.This costs £8. You have to agree not to publish anywhere without permission. They then charge  £10 for the first  two images, £7.50  for subsequent ones when published on a not for profit site, more for a commercial one. So all one can do is give as much detail ss you can. You can see how I tried to do that here 

 (please excuse unfinished profile.His  career in national government is missing)

+4 votes
It seems that it would be a good use of the 'community' on WikiTree to ask (in G2G) for a look-up in a specific book, with page number cited?

That is, after looking at the pages Linda Peterson linked (Thank you, Linda).

Before the Covid-19 shut-down of libraries, I did call a research librarian in a library far-far away, and asked her to please verify the content of a page in an out-of-print book.  She sent me copies of the pages (from her cell phone).  Of course I cannot re-publish those pages, but it doesn't matter, since verification was really all I needed.  And, there was additional information that was also sourced, which I could add to the profile.

So, the first step was to look-up the book in World Catalog (  Maybe G2G would be faster and easier?

(edited: removed comma)
by Living Britain G2G6 Mach 2 (25.3k points)
edited by Living Britain
+5 votes

I agree with a number of posts that the ideal is to find the original/primary source for a fact where you can, even though that can sometimes be time consuming and occasionally frustrating, when secondary sources just cite each other, and no one has bothered to look at the primary source.

However I am really a strong believer in "citing what you have seen" so citing a source that someone else has claimed to have seen is to me very dangerous.  The only time I might do that is when there is a direct quote, in the secondary source, for instance quoting diary entries or letters written by the subject of the profile I'm working on.

Most referencing styles do allow you to cite a source within a source, using statements 'as cited by ...' or 'as cited in ...' but they all recommend that this is done sparingly.  See this post by Timothy McAdoo about APA referencing style for instance.

by John Atkinson G2G6 Pilot (535k points)
+8 votes
People don't just copy, they synthesize.  They can tell you what data they started with.  But the inferences they make and the conclusions they reach won't be stated explicitly in their sources.

And before that, they had to work out which records applied to who, and which didn't.  They might have had to look at a lot more records than the ones they actually cite.

Comparing done genealogy with original records is apples and oranges. (This is where I have problems with the reliable sources policy).  Done genealogy isn't "facts".  But then again, original sources aren't facts either.  When original sources are combined, inconsistencies often appear.

But if we're copying somebody else's done genealogy into WikiTree, we should certainly say who it was done by.
by Living Horace G2G6 Pilot (572k points)
+2 votes
A source is a description of where a fact, or information came from.  A complete source citation should answer the questions who, what, when, and where. Whether that source provides accurate information is another question altogether.  No source, whether original or derivative should be considered on it's face to be 100% accurate, although we do tend to expect original sources to provide us with the most reliable information.  However, there are also some derivative sources that we have by experience come to consider as reliable.  But, bottom line,  It falls upon the user of a source to make an independent evaluation of the reliability of the source.
by David Douglass G2G6 Pilot (117k points)
David, "A source is a description of where a fact...", and there is the rub. We have the problem of trying to prove or disprove that 'fact', is it truth, or false ? Hence my question, Do we rely upon original data, written close to the time in question, and possibly by someone that had personal knowledge of the data subject, or do we plump for a version written perhaps 600 or 700 years after the event. Is the latter actually a fact, or just an opinion ?
I agree that original sources should be obtained whenever possible.  Are  we to assume that you never depend on derivative sources ?  Even experienced genealogist cite derivative sources in cases where an original source may not be available.  It's up to us to do an independent evaluation of sources as to their reliability and accuracy.  We don't throw out every source that isn't original.  There are cases where research uncovers errors in the original source which is then corrected..
I do appreciate what you are saying, David, but my question still stands. By what do we measure the accuracy of any report,? and compared to what ? How can we honestly claim to do an independent evaluation.? How does research uncover errors if they are judged by nothing more than the opinion of others.? We all know that unless genealogy is correct, it is of little value, but given that we can be dealing with records hundreds of years old, how do we establish the truth.? There has to be more to it than what we find convenient to believe, or what fits our particular presumptions. Otherwise, we cannot fairly dismiss any data as being false, without the means to prove or disprove the verity.

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