The destination for history

The value of referencing in genealogy


Providing references to sources can transform your practice of genealogy and peoples’ opinions of it.  Good references provide the key to bulletproofing your work and sharing findings with others.

Genealogy is little more than anecdote when the sources for facts are not cited and where clear references to sources are not given. Reliable genealogical conclusions depend on reliable data. Central to any good investigation is, therefore, an appreciation of where the data came from – its source – because, by knowing where it came from, any other investigator can re-examine it, consider its reliability, and re-establish conclusions reached.  That is bulletproofing. If others can follow your path and agree with your understanding, then your work is unassailable.  When your approach is sound then the quality of your findings is assured.

Good referencing will enable others to follow in your footsteps because it offers clear, unambiguous statements that point to the evidence underpinning your conclusions. Others can follow because you have shown where to look for that evidence.

 Genealogical work differs from that carried out by conventional historians in its particular reliance on records created, often for administrative purposes, at the time of the event or activity described.  We call these primary sources. Fact-based conclusions are derived from these and take priority over supposition. Historical analyses more typically emerge in non-contemporaneous secondary sources – books or journal papers mostly – and focus on interpretation and hypothesis. Even when using ‘Harvard’ principles for those secondary sources it is important to do so in ways suited to genealogical use, yet consistent with conventional practice.  

It is the referencing of primary sources, though, where the main emphasis needs to be placed in your genealogical work. A vast array of primary source records exists, and they vary in detail across administrations and legislations. It would be foolish, and discouraging, to expect that each type of record should have a unique form of description that had to be learnt by intending genealogists. Instead, what is needed is to introduce the principle of generic types of reference to describe related types of record.

Just as in the natural world, where species are grouped into genera, in which shared characteristics can be seen, the equivalent concept of ‘source types’ becomes essential to rational working in the genealogical world so that, for example, every kind of birth record can be described in the same manner. That eases the genealogist’s task by reducing the burden on what has to be learnt to construct a good reference. The generic eases the path to the specific. There is nothing worse than being overwhelmed by unnecessary detail and the use of source types removes that burden.

This simplification can be taken further by introducing a common structure and sequence of descriptive elements to all source types. The look and feel of all primary source references can, therefore, become the same.  That makes it easier and quicker to do the referencing and easier and quicker for readers to follow and understand it. You need to have these building blocks for successful reference construction. They allow you to stand back from the trees and see the wood.

However, you need more than just recommendations on how to write references. The practical use of these ideas needs examples that can be learnt from and that illuminate the theory and dampen down the dust.  Good examples show how real-world references are set up in different circumstances. They can be copied into your own practice. Real examples can also provide a treasure trove of sources invaluable to any genealogist. You will want to check and study them and tuck them away for use when new challenges arise. They serve as a starter kit for any good genealogical investigation.

Of course, you must not limit yourself to the UK. We all need to consider extending our investigations well beyond UK sources. We have long been wanderers, so examples and sources from elsewhere will broaden our vision. By capturing diverse sources, we can reach out to the emigrant groups within our families and provide the international scope that genealogists must embrace to trace them. Where people went, how they got there and how they settled in at new locations are matters that are significant to a full family history. Examples and sources that enable you deal with that wider world will be invaluable and help you to become the complete genealogist.

At the end of the day good referencing not only leads you to genealogy you can take pride in, it also illustrates the journey you undertook to get there. The path and the destination are both captured. Then, on a less profound note, the next time you look at your own tree, scratch your head and ask ‘Where did I get that from?’ –  the answer will be there in the reference.

By Ian. G. MacDonald

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