Thinking about writing a family history book someday? Most genealogists and family historians do.
Over the years, we have offered lots of advice on how to research your ancestors in ways that will help you write an interesting family narrative that will engage your readers. Today we will focus on a much more nuts and bolts topic: documentation.
Must your family history have a bibliography and source notes? No. There are no rules about what your book will or won’t contain. You are the author. You get to decide. However, if you want to create a record of your ancestors that other genealogists (maybe the next generation in your own family) can build on, you’ll need to document your sources.
As Family Search advises, “The best way to judge the quality of a family group record is by its source footnotes.”
So, if you do want document the story your book tells, here are two pieces advice that will save you time and frustration as you do.
Create complete source notes as go. Each time you consult a new source – book, periodical, document, letter, census record, church record, letter, website, interview, or whatever – record all of the necessary information about that source.
I work with far too many authors who write their manuscript, begin to insert footnotes or endnotes and find out that they don’t have all the information they need about their sources. Going back to locate the source and find the information can be both time consuming and frustrating.
Get acquainted with the Chicago Manual of Style. One common reason that people have to go back to sources is that they didn’t know what information they needed to have when they first consulted the source. The best way make sure this doesn’t happen to you is look at a style guide when you begin researching to see exactly what you will need to document your sources.
There are many places to get good advice on proper documentation including:
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown.Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2007.
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown.QuickSheet: Citing Online Historical Resources: Evidence! Style*,2nd rev. ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2007.
- Silicon Valley PAF Users Group: Family History Documentation Guidelines, 2nd ed. San Jose, Calif.: SVPUG, 2000-2003.
- ProGenealogists. “Internet Citation Guide for Genealogists,” in ProGenealogists Internet site.
But the fact is they are all based on the Chicago Manual of Style. Grammar Girl describes the Chicago Manual of Style, now in its 16th edition, as “indispensable… because it’s so complete I know the answer will always be there.”
The manual is available both in a physical edition and in an online version. It will tell you exactly what you will need to provide a source note for a census record, a letter in a private collection, a newspaper article, an interview, a document found on an internet site, or any other source you might consult. Knowing what you need before you even find your source will save you lots of time and many headaches when it comes time to document the sources in your book.