Anders Family
David Asbel Anders with
Jim and Tina Smith Anders

US GenWeb Project

Rufus and Florence Hall Owen Family in 1947
Rufus and Florence Hall Owen and children

US GenWeb Archives Project


Transylvania County, NC 

GenWeb Project

NC GenWeb


Are You Making This Up? Providing Sources

Kate L. Turabian remains one of the most influential individuals in the history profession.  Fifteen years after her death in 1987, historians continue to use her work daily.  But she wasn't a historian.

Instead she served as the dissertation secretary at the University of Chicago from 1930 to 1958.  In 1937, her work to provide systematic guidelines for citing sources became her first edition of A Manuel for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations based on what is often called the "Chicago Style."  Historians still call this citation system "Turabian" in honor of the secretary who helped organize source information into a consistent solution.  The posthumous sixth edition continues to provide excruciating detail for formatting every kind of footnote, endnote, bibliography and reference list item for everything from a basic book to technical reports and even the United States Constitution.  

The use of a single style within the profession provides consistency.  In academic journals, all articles submitted already contain identical style footnotes and bibliography material, simplifying editing.  And authors know what is expected with simply the word "Turabian" without needing further explanation.  Other styles have been adopted by other professions.  But over the decades, the history profession has honed the use of Turabian so that in the hands of a master, such as my thesis director Dr. William Anderson, footnotes can become a work of art communicating far more simple publication data.  In fact, Turabian has become so crucial to the process of history that Dr. Anderson will probably never forgive me for what I am about to say.

The format really doesn't matter.  Simply including the information is the crucial part.

I emphasize this because the majority of genealogists do not include any source information or so little information as to only tease the reader.  How much of a problems is this?  I have talked to many professionals about our GenWeb Project and requested suggestions.  From academic historians, public historians, archivists and even anthropologists absolutely everyone has raised the problem of an overwhelming lack of source information among family historians. 

I believe there are a couple of very valid reasons why family history has been rather on the light side when it comes to keeping track of sources.  The big reason is technology.  In the 19th century as genealogy really came into its own in the United States,  access to printers was extremely limited, not to mention the sources themselves.  Today, anyone with internet access can publish unlimited genealogy research, with source information, for anyone else with Internet access on at the very least, or a more developed WebPage, or a self-published book with ease.  Transportation of any level of speed, computers, and the basic photocopiers were all unavailable to our 19th century predecessors.  They didn't have the support of the relatively new breed of academic historians who agonize over details of methods and sources.  Believe it or not, we've only been around for a little over a century.

So instead of creating databases of thousands of documented relatives, a lady might only document a specific line back to another name already included in the Daughters of the American Revolution register so she could demonstrate her eligibility for membership.  Single page forms developed to assist in this process.  With limited space, these left little room for source information which became an almost cryptic list with little clue as to what information came from which source.  Through these and many other factors, genealogy developed largely without an emphasis on detailed source information and wit a lot of faith in other researchers.

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That was then.  This is the twenty-first century.  And the majority of researchers who have been in this for awhile will occasionally pop out with a statement to the effect of "that is what I have in my notes.  I'm not sure where it came from.  That was before I started keeping track of sources."  No one realizes just how massive family research will quickly grow - far beyond the capacities of human memory.  Beyond the lessons of experience, there are essentially three reasons why source information is such a vital part of any research.

Acknowledge the work of others  

No researcher begins completely from scratch.  Instead, researchers build on previous research.  Some of this research is fantastic.  Some of it leaves a lot to be desired.  Some of it is down right bad.  But it all represents a lot of hard work by someone.  And even in the problematic works, some useful information can be found. Citing good solid research lets readers know you did your homework.  Citing the less reliable sources lets them know there is still more work to be done.  But most importantly, these citations recognize the efforts and contributions of others in the present work.  

Provides credibility 

Citations tell readers whether or not they can trust the information presented.  Sometimes they can't.  Honestly providing sources shifts any problems in interpretation to the source. And letting readers know that a totally new fact is from an obscure document that you discovered adds an impressive "wow."  Source information also provides the context for your research by showing how the creator of the source is connected to events, what biases or special information may be included. 

Guides the next researcher 

No research is ever complete.  A single individual simply does not have time to seek out every source and pursue every angle.  With time such an overwhelming factor, you will benefit from future research, and future researchers will thank you, if you provide information about which sources have been located.  This information can prevent duplication of work as well as suggest which sources may have more information.  Keep in mind that often that future researcher is also the present researcher.  Years from now - or even just days - you will likely be the primary beneficiary of your own good source information.

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So what information do you need to include? Keeping in mind the uses of source information provides some basic guidelines:


This includes authors, transcribers, translators, editors and other individuals involved in determining what information is included in the source. Usually unspoken, behind these names, historians often recognize their relationships to the information that help readers understand how reliable that information may be.


Titles, dates, and even clarification of what kind of information such as a letter not only identify a sources, but help readers understand how close the source is to the events described and what kinds of information can be included. In some cases, authors will include comments about the sources and its usefulness in addition to basic information.

Access Information

How can your reader find this sources.   For a basic book this will include simple publication information and page numbers.  For a one of a kind manuscript this can include the name and location of the archives as well as a detailed accession number obtained from the archivist.  Microfilm sources listings will often include reel numbers.  These are particularly helpful in large collections such as the Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty land Warrant  files where the reels number in the thousands.  The more details the better in saving future researchers time locating the information.  

Beyond these basic principals, the exact format will depend on what you are writing and who you are writing for.  If you need inspiration, Kate Turabian has provided a lot of suggestions for all history research - including your own.  If you want to see just how helpful her work can be, look through the editions of the Journal of Cherokee Studies edited by Dr. Anderson and his articles in particular.  The detailed citations demonstrate the benefits this high quality of source information can provide and examples we can all strive to achieve.

 - Linda Hoxit Raxter, originally posted March 31, 2003

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