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The Importance of Documenting The Source in Your Family History Research

Updated on June 20, 2016
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Linda lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia. She has been researching her family history for over 40 years.

Documenting the source of your family history data may be one of the most important things a family historian should do. If you have been researching for any length of time, you've discovered that the Internet can save you hours of sitting in a court house or library. With so much data available on line, you can add dozens of branches to your tree in just a few hours. There are hundreds of web sites that have actual images of census data, marriage and birth records, obituaries, and the like, but just as you can't believe every word of every story that your uncle Bob told you, you can't believe everything you see on the screen either.

There are many reasons why the data is unreliable:

  1. Census takers were sometimes paid by the tax collectors. This resulted in children being moved from one household to another to reduce the head count in the household.
  2. Census takers historically spelled phonetically.
  3. The legal age to marry varied from state to state and frequently ages were fabricated to obtain a marriage license.
  4. Census documents were handwritten in the field and the handwriting is sometimes illegible for transcribing.
  5. Inconsistency in recording names. Some census takers recorded only initials and others recorded nicknames rather than legal names.
  6. Age and year of birth were often estimated.

So, I think you get the picture. The data is available but it is your responsibility as the family historian to verify the data with multiple sources. It is also inevitable that sooner or later, a question will arise regarding your data. If you have neglected to document your source, it is darn near impossible to verify. I learned this the hard way.

Overcoming The Obstacles

As you build your database, you will begin to find these inconsistencies and, you will learn how to vary your on-line searches to find your ancestors. It just takes diligence and practice. I'll use my own family as an example.

As you probably know, the 1940 Federal Census has been released and some of the more popular sites like or have made it available both in transcribed records and through image files. I entered a surname in the search bar and came up with no results. How could that be? My great grandfather had borne 27 children. Why are there no descendants in the 1940 census? And after several frustrating tries, I stumbled upon the answer. Misspelled ! My Roark relatives are found in the 1940 Census as Raakes. Yep, every single one of them.

Thankfully, I've been at this for many years so I didn't waste a whole day looking for my Roarks'. I moved on to another branch and happened to view one of the image files and discovered a nest of my Roarks' that I could only recognize by the common given names.

Over time, I have found children of one relative listed as the son or daughter of another relative. I've found mother-in-laws listed as the spouse of their son-in-law. The problems with the data are endless but it is not impossible to sort out. You just need a lot of patience.

The most important thing you can do for your research is to check the data with multiple sources and provide source citations in your database.

Source Citations

Why are source citations important? Because if you have them, you can return to the source when you find conflicts in the data. Source citations also validate your work. They will also give you an excuse when Aunt Susan tells you that Uncle Henry wasn't the father of cousin Jim.

Always keep in mind that your research will become a historical document, some how, some way. Whether you publish in print and distribute copies to your family, publish your family tree on the web, or donate your research to a local library or historical society, your work should be validated by the sources you've used.

Most web resources will provide you with a source citation that you can copy and paste into your database. Use them. They make life easy. If your data was communicated orally by a relative, create a source in your database for Oratory and use the comment field to document the name of the relative, date of the story, etc. When your source is a newspaper, create a source for that paper and use the comment field to document the date of publication, the section, and the page number, etc.

Remember, the sources you create should provide at least the following information:

  • Name of the source
  • Type of Source (newspaper, oral interview, etc.)
  • Address of source (either physical or Internet address)
  • Date of publication or access
  • Location of the source
  • Chapter, page, section, etc. for printed sources

Just keep in mind that your source is the road map to the information you have gathered. It may be useful to you, or to those who enjoy your research years from now. It may feel burdensome but trust me, it's worth it. You want your work to have value and be taken seriously. After all, you haven't spent a lifetime doing this only to have your work devalued or discounted.

Internet Sources For Verifying Data

I've never liked talking about problems without offering a possible solution so although it is not comprehensive, these are some of the sources I use to verify my data. Remember, there are thousands more available but these are simple to use. I open them in multiple tabs in my browser and bounce back and forth between them at random.

What Did I Say?

I've covered a lot of territory here on a superficial level but if you only take one thing from this hub, it is this....


Life happens. We never know what is around the next bend. You've spent a lifetime collecting your family history. Protect it. Make a back up copy periodically and store it away from your home. Back up, back up, back up your data files. Computers are unpredictable. You certainly don't want one computer to be the single repository of all that work. Make digital copies of your photographs and store them on a flash drive or disc. If you have original documents, make digital copies and store the originals in a fire-proof, water-proof container. I would even suggest a safe deposit box or a personal safe.

You chose to do this so be responsible. You are after all, the family historian. Happy hunting!

© 2012 Linda Crist, All rights reserved.

Read more of my hubs here.


Submit a Comment

  • lrc7815 profile image

    Linda Crist 5 years ago from Central Virginia

    Thank you so much Kaili. Isn't it interesting how "connected" we all are? The more I dig the more amazed I am. My database now has almost 7000 people in it who are all related either by blood or by marriage. My goal is to collect stories from each of them and never allow them to just be names in a database. It's a lofty goal, I know. lol

  • Kaili Bisson profile image

    Kaili Bisson 5 years ago from Canada

    Congratulations on your nomination. Great hub here with some really wonderful tips. Family research is one of my hobbies, and it has been such an interesting road. I now have family to visit all over the U.S. and Canada. Voted up!

  • lrc7815 profile image

    Linda Crist 5 years ago from Central Virginia

    Lucky you, ripplemaker. I dream of the day my family will actually come together for a reunion. There hasn't been any interest up until now. I'm slightly envious. lol

  • ripplemaker profile image

    Michelle Simtoco 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

    When we had our clan reunion a couple of years ago, we finally constructed our family tree. It was a joy seeing it come to life. :)

    Ripplemaker News Flash:

    Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination. To read and vote for the Hubnuggets, this way

  • lrc7815 profile image

    Linda Crist 5 years ago from Central Virginia

    Thanks Grayghost. I totally agree. I've had so much help over the years because of the experience of others. It is important to share. I really appreciate your kind remarks.

  • grayghost profile image

    grayghost 5 years ago

    Great Hub with excellent tips and resources! My nephew and I began a "family" genealogy project over 20 years ago that has now spun off into a small "Family History" business. One resource every researcher should value as much as their own effort is the experience and advice from others like you who are doing the same kind of work. Thanks for what you have provided here!

  • 34th Bomb Group profile image

    34th Bomb Group 5 years ago from Western New York State

    I, too, am in the process of doing this. I'm fortunate in that my late Mother did it the hard way for the D.A.R.

    My Father's family is the rub. His notes left to me helped but it's still a mess. Such were the Irish...

  • lrc7815 profile image

    Linda Crist 5 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi Marie - good catch on the grandfather thing. I certainly should have used "fathered" instead of borne. The Roarks in Arkansas are my relatives (distant though) but I have not extended my research to include them or, the Roarks in Texas. I appreciate your good eye and your kind remarks.

  • profile image

    Marie Brannon 5 years ago

    As another experienced family historian, I enjoyed this hub. You even gave me a chuckle when you said your great-grandfather had borne 27 children; I was under the impression that only women bear children but who knows? hehe.

    Also, I found it interesting that you mention the Roark family. There were a bunch of them in south Arkansas where I'm from - small world! Thanks again for a nice article.


  • lrc7815 profile image

    Linda Crist 5 years ago from Central Virginia

    Hi lj - I feel your pain. lol That's horrible about the memorial plot. I was talking to a family member a few days ago about the value of gravestones and what the future holds for genealogy with so many people being cremated these days. I guess your story put a new perspective on the value. Thanks for sharing it.

  • lj gonya profile image

    lj gonya 5 years ago

    I've been doing genealogy for probably 40 years, and one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was the fact that in the 18th and 19th centuries, many children lived with other family members and were often mistakenly recorded as their own children, instead of relatives. My great great grandparents raised several nephews which are occasionally listed as their children in many "researched" papers and documents. It gets frustrating! Worse yet, my husband's cousin had an expensive cemetery memorial plot created in bronze with all of the wrong family connections and lists of who was buried there.

  • Millionaire Tips profile image

    Shasta Matova 5 years ago from USA

    This is great advice. Documenting your sources and protecting your work are the fundamental rules of genealogy. For both of them, I had to learn the hard way myself.