Posted by: downtothesea | November 28, 2008

On sources and citation: a plea from a sinner.

I’ll be the first to admit that my excitement gets the better of me.  That I just get so caught up in following the trail, in tacking on name after name, connection after connection, year after year, and decade after decade that I commit the cardinal sin of amateur genealogists:  I don’t cite my sources consistently.

Maybe it’s because it all happened too fast, because it was too easy at the start.  Genealogists before the advent of internet research had to do all manner of time-consuming things like traveling to distant archives and digging through volume after volume of vital statistics or wrecking their eyesight on reels of badly-produced mircofilm.  They fought long and hard for the information they found, and they were going to cite their darn sources, just to prove they did the grunt work to uncover them.

I, on the other hand, never planned for this foray into genealogy to blossom as it has.  I never consciously thought, “Today I am going to begin the first stages of what will become a lifelong historical project.”  Instead, my thoughts were along the lines of “I’ve got nothing better to do for a few hours, so why don’t I type in a few names at this genealogy site and see what I get, just for kicks.”

Never could I have imagined that at the end of those few hours I would have produced a skeletal pedigree chart of a few generations’ depth;  not a lot, but more than I’d ever been able to discover through nearly three decades of simply talking with my family about family.  And I don’t think I’m exaggerating here when I say the entire process was addictive.  So easy.  Intant results.

By trade I am a historian.  I know the critical importance of citing souces.  Why then did I simply ignore the chance to cite sources on the internet as I charged ahead with my research, to help me follow up with them later when I went searching for that Holy Grail of the amateur genealogist:  the primary source, viewed in person?  Why?  The simple answer is this: I made the mistake of thinking that no one besides me would ever care about what I was doing.

I can be excused for thinking this way.  I am the only child of two only children, neither of whom showed much if any interest in genealogy beyond a passing acknowledgement of the meager research I’d done previous.  Never would I have imagined that my father, of all people in the world, a man (bless him) who met my early enthusiasm for history as an undergrad with, at most, a polite if disinterested smile, would suddenly become entirely enthralled with the family research I was doing and would pour through my awkward notes whenever I brought them on a visit home.  Never would I have imagined that I’d find a delightful group of my own cousins living in California who were also amateur genealogists and eager to share information.

What it comes down to is this: if I had known, or even imagined that this “hobby” would ever have meant anything to anyone else but me, I would have been a responsible historian and cited my sources.

I am now faced with the exhausting task of retracing my footfalls and digging up references for each morsel I’ve discovered.  It’s the right thing to do, but so heartbreakingly time-consuming.

So: lesson one.  Cite your sources.  Even if it’s a bit of a buzzkill.



  1. If it makes you feel better, I do the same exact thing and I’m a librarian, so I should know better too! It’s just so hard to make yourself slow down sometimes and construct proper citations — like you said: total buzzkill.

  2. You’re absolutely right; it’s hard to think clearly in the haze of “Oh! This person fits here, so maybe I should check the date on this person…they’re related! They’re siblings! Find the parents! What’s the date? How far back can I take the surname? One more generation…c’mon…ONE MORE GENERATION!”

  3. You post captures precisely the sense of excitement that first got me hooked on genealogy and the initial successes that gradually led to the more sober realization that all these findings must be properly organized and documented. I guess we can take comfort in the fact that a lot of that tedious housekeeping can lead to more finds.

    Very enjoyable blog!

    • Greta, thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment! I do appreciate it!

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