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How many sources/citations is too many? - Sat, 28 Dec 2013

This was an excellent question asked at Genealogy & Family History StackExchange yesterday. I answered stating that each source should be included just once with each person it pertains to at the person level, or if it is specific to a certain event (birth, marriage, death, residence, occupation, etc.) then it could be cited from that event rather than as a general source at the person level.

I was surprised at the opposition this idea had. The other answers were stating that sources should be everywhere, not only on every event or fact that it might pertain to, but even onto every assertion made about every event and fact.

Let’s take a look at this from the point of view of Gramps, a typical program with respect to the way it handles sources, and the program that was asked about in the question.

In a quick search on the web, I could only find one screenshot where a person displayed a Gramps report that included source references: This one, from Christopher Fritz’s Beyond a Sapling blog:


You will notice, as many programs do, Gramps displays the source references as superscripts. I presume the citations will be listed as footnotes or endnotes. I’m not sure why each number is suffixed by a letter, but those are likely something meaningful to the author.

There are 5 sources for the birth event: 3a, 4a, 5b, 8a, 9a. There is one for his death: 10a. There is one for his burial: 9a.  On his name, they’ve summarized all seven sources (a nice touch since they also apply to the person) and have one other, 11a listed that must apply to the person, but not to any specific event.

Some of the same references and a few others apply to Hugh’s children and are also shown with them.

This to me, is the proper level of documentation of sources. To denote the source with its primary event or with the person is the correct thing to do. Most programs allow you to do this in this way.

Let’s carry this a step further by sourcing absolutely every event and fact as the others recommended in their answers to the StackExchange question. We have statements about Hugh that are not documented.

He was the son of Morrison, John Boyd and McMasters, Margret. How is that known? We may have conflicting evidence, so shouldn’t we be indicating which documents supported (or didn’t support that). Let’s mark those as 3a, 4a, 5b, the same documents as used earlier.

Hugh had a relationship with Turner, Christia Jane. Obviously that needed a source but wasn’t given one. Could it be that the children’s birth records named both parents. Then let’s add 5b, 8a, 13a to the relationship fact.

Now let’s not limit our sources to one event, but add it to all that it may apply to. I’m sure the death record gave the date of birth. So let’s add 10a to the birth sources. And lets add the cemetery stone information, 9a, to the birth and death record. Oh! It’s already on the birth record.

So just using the information we have been given, we have started to add duplicate citations onto every event. Imagine if we had a letter that told of Hugh’s life and death, said how old he was, where he was buried and who his parents were. We would then have to add that source reference 5 times to Hugh’s information. Let’s call it 15b.

This is what we’ve got now:

Morrison, Hugh Gilbreth3a,4a,5b,8a,11a,9a,10a,13a,15b

Hugh Gilbreth was born in 1838 in Pennsylvania, United States3a,4a,5b,8a,9a,10a,15b. He died on 1913-05-08 in Denton County, Texas, United States at the age of 75 years, 4 months10a,9a,15b. He was buried after 1913-05-08 in Pilot Point Community Cemetery9a,15b. He was the son of Morrison, John Boyd and McMasters, Margaret3a, 4a, 5b,15b. He had a relationship with Turner, Christia Jane5b,8a,13a,15b.

This is certainly more complete. But is it better?

I added the 15b onto every event to show how it makes that information less useful. Sure you’ll have all the references you need for each event, but the extra information makes it harder to identify what’s important.

Let’s now go a step further as some of the other answers to the StackExchange question proposed. Let’s source every assertion!

Hugh’s date of birth, place of birth, date of death, place of death, age at death, date of burial and place of burial are all individual facts. Each may have different supporting material. Should we not then give each their own list of sources?

The dates and places mentioned in each source may not be identical. Hugh’s birth date may have been 1838 on 3a, not given on 4a, After 1835 on 5b, Age 5 in the 1840 census for 8a and age 16 in the 1850 census for 9a. The birth place may also be different for each source. Should we not list the individual birth dates separately and source each one individually?

This, to me, is carrying the documentation of sources almost to the level of absurdity. What I would do in the latter example is simply attach a note onto the birth record stating that the various records gave dates of www and the records yyy and xxx were considered most reliable because of zzz.

The level at which we analyze our data is within the context of a person’s life. When doing so, we want to gather all the information we have about the person and use it together to piece the puzzle.

I have been talking about sourcing in standard genealogy software. Programs designed for evidence analysis such as Evidentia, GenQuiry, Clooz or Lineascope do require analysis and sourcing at the assertion level. But they present their data in a customized manner that supports this.

For standard genealogy software, I think associating each source to all of a person’s individual events and facts and then further associating each source onto the many assertions used to conclude each event and fact is a case of too much detailing. The extra work involved to do so, as well as the complexity it adds, overwhelms the benefits that the extra detail might provide.

Instead, by associating each source only once per person, either at the person level or at the event level, you’ll have a clear and concise documentation of the sources used to provide the conclusions about that person.

5 Comments           comments Leave a Comment

1. Jan Murphy (janmurphy)
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Joined: Sat, 28 Dec 2013
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Posted: Sat, 28 Dec 2013  Permalink

The problem comes about because there are many steps to the process, and we’re all describing different parts, like the blind men all touching a different part of the elephant. Lineage-linked databases are being pressed into service as our main research repositories, and few if any have tools for evidence management. You wouldn’t build a house when you don’t have a hammer, driving nails with the handle of your screwdriver, because the screwdriver is the only tool you have. But that’s what happens when we have to keep all our evidence in a lineage-linked database, in the absence of other tools.

It is ugly to create multiple birth events and have all these extra citations, but if I don’t have a choice if I want to record the information exactly as it was written. A calculated birth event from the census can’t be a proper source for a person’s precise date of birth. But that information needs to be kept somewhere or I can’t run a query and have it turn up in the results.

Obviously if I were writing up a biographical profile, or preparing a Family Group Sheet to hand out to someone, I would edit the source citations so that the birth, death, and marriages had the source citations from all of the sources most relevant to those events. I wouldn’t clutter up something for presentation with a citation for every source for every assertion.

2. Louis Kessler (lkessler)
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Joined: Sun, 9 Mar 2003
231 blog comments, 226 forum posts
Posted: Sat, 28 Dec 2013  Permalink


So why go through all that extra work and clutter it up for yourself? It isn’t necessary.

What is necessary is to have every source documented so that they can be found again. Linking the source once per person is all that is necessary. It need not be linked from multiple events or numerous assertions for the person.

What is also necessary is that your assertions be comprehensively documented. You can do so through your notes, and refer to the source documents in a descriptive manner, rather than trying to physically link everything. We are talking about explaining your reasoning here, not about making the reader interpret your trail of source references.


3. colevalleygirl (colevalleygirl)
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Joined: Sun, 29 Dec 2013
2 blog comments, 0 forum posts
Posted: Sun, 29 Dec 2013  Permalink


I think you’re conflating process and outputs.

The **process** of conducting effective and thorough family history research requires every relevant piece of information in each source consulted to be analysed for the evidence it might provide to support an assertion about an individual. Different sources provide different and often contradictory evidence about the same assertion and those differences and contradictions needs to be recorded as well as assessed and explained as part of the reasoning for settling on a ‘most likely’ conclusion. You can’t expect another researcher to follow your reasoning if you don’t tell them which pieces of information from which sources you’ve relied upon to reach a specific conclusion, and which pieces of information you’ve decided are misleading. Documenting sources isn’t just about finding them again, it’s about understanding what use has been made of them, and providing a ‘bucket-full’ of ‘general sources’ doesn’t help anyone to know how you’ve used them.

The way you **output** your source documentation, however, depends on your audience. If you’re documenting your work as thoroughly as possible for your own benefit and for other researchers who might wish to build on it (or contradict it), you’ll cite every source used in reaching every conclusion and document the reasoning that led to that conclusion using those source (aka a ‘proof statement’, although the phrase ‘proof’ has it problems in this context). At the very least, this will enable you to reconstruct your own thinking when a new piece of evidence appears, and slot it into the jigsaw more quickly. And I’d argue it’s simple courtesy to other researchers to tell them everything you know.

Family members, however, quite often couldn’t care less about the detail of how you’ve arrived at the story you’re telling them. You’ll probably want to concentrate on the major/most reliable (in your opinion) source for every attribute — there might even be a place for a simple list of ’sources about that individual’ (although I think I’d want to encourage some semblance of understanding the research process).

An ideal database for recording conclusions (aka a lineage-linked database) would allow you to record all the evidence and the reasoning but decide what and how you presented it when generating an output. I haven’t found one that is that flexible, hence I’ve written GenQuiry to manage the research/reasoning process and can attach a ‘proof statement’ to a conclusion in my lineage-linked database that includes all the gory detail where the complexity of sources and/or reasoning justifies it. I do realise this approach may be diametrically opposite to your design goals for Behold.

4. Louis Kessler (lkessler)
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Joined: Sun, 9 Mar 2003
231 blog comments, 226 forum posts
Posted: Sun, 29 Dec 2013  Permalink

I agree with what you say, and you’re doing a great job with GenQuiry.

I don’t know if I’d say we’re “diametrically opposite”. The design of Behold is to eventually allow source-based data entry, which few programs do. I would not say I’m as interested in the “proof” side of it as I am in the documentation of where it came from.

It may take two-steps: (1) get them to document their sources, and then (2) get them to prove their assertions. We’re both working to the same result, but taking slightly different paths.

Let’s both keep it going. All genealogists will benefit from our efforts.


5. cp (cp)
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Joined: Mon, 19 Mar 2012
5 blog comments, 9 forum posts
Posted: Sun, 19 Jan 2014  Permalink

Interesting thoughts, as usual

My solution is to record and process all my sources and reasoning in a dedicated program (I’m actually using GenQuiry, but did look at Evidentia as well). Such a program can be used in so many different workflows, but my aim is to end up with a single ‘conclusion’ document that truly demonstrates my thinking and sources. In other words a Genealogical Proof Standard, even if my exact way of defining it may differ from this US ‘Standard’.

Then I have one single ’source’ for every fact entered in my ‘main’ program of record (at the moment Family Historian but then Behold when it is market-ready :) ) - clutter-free and even unsourced ‘facts’ (eg hearsay, probability and logic) can be justified so that others can argue and dismiss it. This ‘end’ program should be there to display your conclusions and derive a ged file that can then be displayed on the web and/or distributed.

But other users may differ and I have no problems with that!!!

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