Citing internet sources

Alicia Crane WilliamsReaders have asked how to cite Internet sources. Confession, I don’t really know the answer – and I don’t think many others do, either. It is a new, still-evolving discipline complicated by the transitory nature of the beast, where links to pages get changed and/or vanish into cyberspace. Often I cannot even find my own way back to something I ran across while researching.

There are many style guides for citations, but the “Big Daddy” of them all for genealogy is Elizabeth Shown Mills’ nearly 900-page Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 3rd edition (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2015). In her chapter on “Fundamentals of Citation,” she starts out by stating that “Citation is an art, not a science,” and once we learn the fundamentals “we are free to improvise.” She gives the fundamentals in the first two chapters of the book and the rest consists of detailed examples for every conceivable contingency. All well worth studying when you are ready for the graduate level course.

In the meantime, however, I recommend that you start learning simply by imitation. As you read articles in the Register or other genealogical publications, note how Internet sources are cited. They will undoubtedly vary among publications and probably even within different volumes of the same publication – it is still an evolving art, after all – but the basic information is the same as when citing a book: author, title of the article, name of the database or collection, when and by whom published, the date you accessed it [particularly important for the ever changing Internet], and the full URL to the relevant page(s).

Raise your hand if you cut corners with URLs. [My hand is raised.] They can be really long and look really funny in footnotes. I also am good at avoiding identifying authors and creators, database titles, and many other details from web pages. However, I can see that this dragon is not going away, so I am making an effort to learn.

As an example, I was recently introduced to the proper NEHGS style of citing a record from FindAGrave:

Online image at FindAGrave.com {posted date, by _____ (name of dead person, Find A Grave memorial #____)}.

Does it matter? I could go to www.findagrave.com, make a search by name and find the entry without knowing the memorial number or who posted the information. However, if I am looking for William Williams whose death date is unknown, the memorial number is likely to save me a lot of time and effort. Also knowing when it was posted and by whom can help if there are discrepancies or questions.

I have Evidence Explained on my dining room table flattening oversized files but within reach when needed.

P.S. For those who have asked about a template file for the Early New England Families Study Project format, e-mail me at alicia.williams@nehgs.org.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

24 thoughts on “Citing internet sources

  1. This has been a surprise to me. I have a degree cum laude in history (pre-internet) and have written and published frequently. I document sources with name, author, date, page etc. but not the library where the book, periodical etc. is located. Libraries are included in the acknowledgements.

    Why are internet sources different? It makes it impossibly unwieldy to cite all those URLs, which change or disappear often, in addition to all the info the source requests you to provide. Familysearch.org, for instance, asks for almost a paragraph-length citation for each reference.

    This is an onerous imposition on researchers and will put off both writers and readers.

      1. Hear! Hear! Hear! Stay with Chicago Manual or Harvard Guide.

        Thus, the Find A Grave example above (sorry, Henry & Helen, that’s an example of Over-Thinking, which is the kindest thing I can think to say of it) would read:

        “Dead Person,” Memorial #______ (original posting date [with revision date, if given]), online at findagrave.com; writer/maintainer; access date.

        It will get you THERE with minimal effort and you can avoid the “http://____/_____/____” idiocy which I know still appears in Register footnotes. There’s a reason Google and Bing work fine with just entering words in search boxes. Their coders have learned how to cut out “middle men” for the common user, and here the middle man is the URL string.

        EXAMPLE of my Suggested Official Register Style:
        “Laura Ingalls Wilder,” Memorial # 1625 (1 Jan. 2001), online at findagrave.com; biographical information by “rae” added after 1 April 2002, no sources cited; accessed 29 Oct. 2015.”

        Why no “by”? Because the originator & the maintainer are less and less the same person. Who ever put this up originally is not now associated with it. The memorial as a “physical” artifact is now maintained by Find A Grave staff. The bio info was added after 1 April 2002 because I checked to see how long “rae” has been a contributor. She has been active only from 1 April 2002 — AFTER the site was originally created.

        If “rae” HAD cited a source, then the example would then read as
        “biographical information by “rae” added after 1 April 2002, citing John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder (U. of Missouri Press, 1998); accessed 29 Oct. 2015.”

        That follows Anderson in GM who will often cite “[MD vol:page citing PCPR vol:page]” (which “translates” as “I trust Bowman”).

        Internet citations should look as much like all regular citations as possible. And the search functions of Google/Bing make that possible.

        1. Hi Bob, I was beginning to worry about you, not hearing from you recently. Overthinking is a good word. Also trying to standardize disparate types of records and websites seems fruitless.

    1. One reason Internet sources are different is that you can often find the page again on the Internet Archive IFF you have the original URL and when you used it. I’ve often been able to recover something from RootsWeb or GenWeb that has long disappeared (or been moved) online. I don’t, however, preserve the entire URL for records or images from Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org, since they seem to move at random and are not captured in the Internet Archive. For FamilySearch I use the details URL which does seem persistent.

      1. Susan, good to know. Another problem involves citing sources that are on all of these websites, such as censuses. Obviously, only one is needed, but each site has a slightly different search protocol and a slightly different citation method. Ugh.

    2. Virginia, I personally feel that everyone is trying to squeeze the Internet citations into the Book model when it really doesn’t fit. I don’t know what the eventual outcome will be, although I am certain we will go through many versions, but in the end it may become more of a text note than a citation, enabling the author to include variables, etc.

  2. Thanks, Alica.
    Internet sources are clearly complex, because of their potential length, but also for their changing nature. Sometimes they are the only source, and will likely be more frequenty used in the future. Your recommendation to acquire Mills’ book, Evidence Explained, is probably a good idea.

  3. Aaargh, the dreaded footnote! Another problem is that websites sometimes migrate to new servers and then the URLs change. How many of us have tried to look up a source from an older journal, only to get the “404” or “not found” error code? MLA suggests only citing the URL if the website is hard to find by title, but I’m not sure that solves the problem either–it seems as though information in cyberspace is permanent when we don’t want it to be and impermanent when we do.

  4. I agree with Virginia. As I gather information and print it out, I write the source on the back just in case it works again. But often it is a digital image from a census, newspaper, Bible, will, deed or book. I have always assumed that if I found the original document, it would look like the image and therefore the image source was the important thing not the website it was found. Am I off base?

    1. Catherine, the images and documents are the important part, but guiding the researcher to where they can access the same for themselves, and probably others that will be relevant to their search, is equally important. Also, there are sometimes different versions of images of the same original documents, some which may be more legible than others.

  5. I’ll confess to not having waded through the Mills book, but have an academic writing background. I just keep the two purposes of citation in mind: clarity of authority and verifiability. If the citation footnote is long, so be it. If YOU need to return to it 5 years from now, you’ll be glad you cited the whole thing. If it’s a document online, you drill down to find the document source, if you can, so that the citation can survive the web site (even Ancestry or FamilySearch could reorganize access). In writing I normally use end notes, but people copy out single pages in genealogical works, so I do use footnotes for family history writing. The easy rule is that in most cases citation progresses from the general to the specific, and the more specific, usually, the better, so that somebody else can find it. Sometimes the citations are quite long, but it doesn’t matter if the form is clear and consistent. Functionality rules, and let other people (like editors) fuss about what may be unnecessary. If it’s potentially transitory, I take a pdf and attach it to my source file, with the citation. I don’t keep a lot of paper. I mostly use RM for organization. Just my own practice.

    1. Arthur, very good practice, but I have little hope that any URL of today will be useable in five years. Some of this may be solved with continued consolidation of host sites, which in turn consolidates citations.

  6. Lately, with the mushrooming availability of images of original documents on sources like FamilySearch, Ancestry, Fold3, etc.) I have taken to downloading copies of those images. Through experience, I have also learned to very carefully copy and paste the URL for each image into a document filed with the image so that if I ever need to I can immediately re-find that image. Yes, I know that servers and URLs change, gut it’s better than nothing.

    However, not what I’m writing, I too am conflicted over the dictum of providing enough information so that another researcher could confirm what I’ve taken from a source, and the pain of URLs that can grow to 4 or 5 lines of hieroglyphics in a footnote. One shortcut I’ve started with Ancestry is that if Ancestry cites the original source, I also cite that original source and add something like “image seen on [date] at http://www.ancestry.com.”

    1. Greg, yes. There are two issues, one is identifying the document and two is identifying where to find it. At present we can only state where we found it and when. Therefore the description of the document and its origin may turn out to be ore valuable in the future than any current URL.

  7. Chicago, Modern Language Association (MLA), and the American Psychological Association style formats all have addressed how to cite online resources. If you do a Google search on “online resources” “citation” (and enter it just like this, with the quotes), you will get many results. Most academic libraries have guides to citing sources on their web sites, and include examples for both print and electronic sources. For MLA, the Owl at Purdue is great. It can be found at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/ . The Owl can also help with Chicago style. Go to https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/717/05/ .

    Cindy in Maryland, Librarian and editor who uses mostly Chicago

    1. Cindy, thanks. I think part of the problem is that there are already different “standard” styles that are attached to certain academic and/or industry works. All similar, but each slightly different. Add in the impermanence of Internet pages, particularly for genealogical research, which is going through generations of companies buying out companies, consolidating and dividing sources, etc., it can be very discouraging when we try to encourage genealogists to cite their materials.

      1. I am finding that updates to the standard formats found in academia are not always recommending that the URL be included it the citation. One reason is that URLs are sometimes just too long to be manageable. If the resource can be easily found using its title via a search engine, then the URL can be eliminated from the citation. The lack of permanence on the internet isn’t limited to genealogy; it happens in all fields. Databases of academic journals have been around since the mid-1990s and these products are bought and sold on a regular basis. Publishers decide to leave one aggregator for another that offers a better deal; suddenly your favorite journal now in Brand Z’s database, not Brand Y, which is the location for it that you included in your paper of 4 years ago. Somehow, we all manage to find it and survive, though with much gnashing of teeth.

        1. Cindy, That is good to know that we’re all in the same boat. Undoubtedly, someone will invent even more powerful tracking programs and we might indeed have citations that just have Google Search criteria. It will be interesting to follow.

  8. The British History Online site tells you exactly how to cite its material,which is very helpful. It seems to me that when you’re using a major website, such as that, you don’t need the entire edress, but when it is a less “stable” one, you do, but I could lean either way. BHistory always notes the date accessed, so I do too.

    1. Elizabeth, thank you. It will be interesting to see if anyone comes up with any improvements to the system. In the meantime, I guess “more is better,” is the best policy.

  9. One could solve the long URL problem by limiting the amount of online sources used for citation. I have yet to come across a reliable source or record that couldn’t be found in hard copy at some library, court house, historical society – the record came from somewhere physical. As someone has already noted, genealogical websites are simply repositories and a convenience for us researchers who’s subject of interest leads far far away from our homes. I pay my respects to NEHGS and sites like them by noting them as the repository in my source citation, but not listing the entire URL for their digital entry.

    If it is a scanned image of a book or paper record, identify the location where the original/hard copy is held and site it as the source. In my opinion, online sources should be used as a last resort because, well, do you believe everything you read on the internet? Especially from third hand sources – for example, Find-a-grave entries where the typist included detailed vital information to a lone headstones just because the engraved name and death year was right?

    If a fellow researcher has published their family genealogy online only and you want to use their research, take the chance that their web page won’t go away, use the long URL, and print a copy or save the page as a PDF. It’s all you can do. If the owner sells the information or changes their URL for whatever reason, you’ve done your due diligence. And realistically, we shouldn’t rely on this type of publication as a sole source for information. Verify, validate, and confirm.

Leave a Reply