21 June 2022

How to Fix Bad or Missing Source Citations

Regular spot-checks are a great way to see where your family tree needs your attention. Today I checked one type of source citation in my family tree to see what needs improvement.

I randomly chose the source title "New York, U.S., State and Federal Naturalization Records, 1794-1943." (That's the database title on Ancestry.com.)

The value of thorough source citations is clear. Each one you create properly is a victory.
The value of thorough source citations is clear. Each one you create properly is a victory.

I used to create a generic source citation for many types of documents. For example, each U.S. Census year, NY naturalization records, ship manifests, and so on. Then I'd attach the generic citation to every fact that came from that source. But that didn't help to prove the facts.

Now that I know better, I like to do it right and make individual citations with all the specific facts.

The only way to turn these generic source citations into proper citations is one at a time. I have 30 NY naturalization citations, and 23 of them are generic. Here's what I'll do for each one:

As I view my source citations, I'll go to the person attached to a generic citation.

I'll check the document image to see if I've saved the specific details about this source. If I did save the facts, I can use them to build the new source citation. If I didn't save the facts, I need to search for this person's naturalization record online again.

Storing details in the document image notes is a terrific genealogy practice.
Storing details in the document image notes is a terrific genealogy practice.

These days I make a habit of storing all the citation details with the associated image. But I didn't always do it that way. This first image has:

  • a caption beginning with the year
  • a date from the document
  • a document category
  • some facts about the image, including its image number, database name, and URL.

That's a good start. I can return to that saved URL and view its source information. What I want to add to this image is this:

Source Citation:
National Archives and Records Administration; Washington, DC; NAI Title: Index to Petitions for Naturalizations Filed in Federal, State, and Local Courts in New York City, 1792-1906; NAI Number: 5700802; Record Group Title: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685-2009; Record Group Number: RG 21

Description: Vol 022 3 May-6 July 1905

Source Information:
Ancestry.com. New York, U.S., State and Federal Naturalization Records, 1794-1943 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.

Now I have everything I need to make a customized source citation for the facts tied to this document. I'll work my way through the list, updating and customizing the generic citations.

When you first began this obsessive hobby, I'll bet you weren't as careful as you are today. There will always be citations we can improve. For me, fixing citations mostly means customizing generic citations. But there will be plenty of places where there's no citation at all.

Start by:

  • Picking a category, like naturalization
  • Viewing your document images
  • Checking the person attached to each image.

Do their source citations show your best work?

Fully detailed source citations that include the document image in question are highly valuable.
Fully detailed source citations that include the document image in question are highly valuable.

The key to any overwhelming task is to divide and conquer. I'm starting with NY Naturalizations because I don't have a ton of them. I tend to pick off smaller items so I can shorten my overall to-do list. I know I'm tricking myself, but it works for me.

You can also start with your closest relatives and fan out. Or tackle all your direct ancestors and then pick off entire families, one at a time.

Your family tree software or website should have source citation templates. Let these templates help you understand what you need to fill in. Wherever you found the document image, the source citation information should be there.

I like to add line numbers to my census form and ship manifest citations so I know exactly where to look. And so does anyone visiting my tree. The idea is to add enough detail that anyone can retrace your steps and find the same information.

My family tree is rapidly closing in on 45,000 people. Due to special circumstances (see How Do You Define Your Ultimate Genealogy Goal?), most of my people have no source citations. But following this method, I can clean up all the citations for my U.S.-born people.

It's all a matter of making it a priority and diving in!


  1. As always, DiAnn, excellent recommendations and a very useful list. From the beginning of my genealogy addiction I've struggled with entering correct source citations, and often being able to find sufficient sources. That's why every trip to Puerto Rico included an extra week just to visit churches, libraries, and government registers to find them. The advent of cellphones was a blessing, but before that I took a small camera and begged to be allowed to use it to photograph every page, especially the church books where births, baptisms, confirmations, deaths and marriages were documented. Thank you for this informative blog. I am now working on my best friends' genealogy, as he grew up by himself since age 13 until his maternal grandmother took him in, and knew nothing of his ancestors.

  2. Thank you so much for these citation helps, however I have questions I've not seen answered.
    1. how do you make a citation for "word of mouth" information? I have information and stories written down from my grandmother and aunt. I have the originals in my possession.
    2. what about original documents - passports, marriage, death, birth, immigration records? These are not on any website. I have possession of these records
    3. Is there a way to copy citations from one tree to another. I'm working on my son-in-law's trees. I made a tree for each of his parents. How do I copy information that would be on both of their trees - marriage, children, etc - from one tree to the other?
    Thank you for informing and teaching us about genealogy.

    1. For #1, I did write about this before, but I didn't get into how to craft the citation: https://family-tree-advice.blogspot.com/2018/09/how-to-find-official-sources-for-family.html

      I'd suggest consulting Elizabeth Shown Mills' "Evidence Explained." See https://www.evidenceexplained.com/

      The same is true for #2. I would scan the documents and describe them following the instructions from Evidence Explained.

      For #3, I think you'd have to recreate the source citation in the 2nd tree. If you use Family Tree Maker, you could try opening both trees at the same time, in two windows, and see if a copy and paste of the citation will work.