Family History

Monday Musings – Citing Images in Databases

I am by no means an expert when it comes to writing source citations, but a discussion this weekend on a Facebook group that I’m a member of raised some questions in my own mind and for once I felt like I had a better grasp on the topic of discussion that some of my fellow group members.

The questions posed was this: When citing a source that you found on a website (think Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org) do you include the website in the citation?

I knew I had read this in Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills, but until that day I hadn’t really through through the reasoning behind it. In taking the time to explain my understanding of the concept to the group, it made it much clearer in my own mind and I had a bit of an “Ah-ha!” moment.

Elizabeth says “Neither database entries nor indexes are records per se…Databases that also offer digital images are a hybrid whose nature we should clarify in our research.” She goes on to explain that the citation should also indicate whether the information obtained came from an image, and index or an abstracted entry. 1

When we are writing a citation in any type of research, genealogical or otherwise, its imperative that your reader has trust in your source. When citing the record, your job is to explain not only where you got the information, but it’s legitimacy.

When we are working with online databases, it’s easy to ignore the fact that these are records that have been touched many times then digitized and indexed by various people. Each website you access could very well have had the image scanned and read by someone different. Case in point, the marriage record for my 2x great grandfather, Joel “Jess” Sawyers to Sallie Bennett. On Ancestry.com, the image is weirdly contrasted and the handwriting blurs a bit in the scan (Image 1). The exact same record, however, on FamilySearch.org (Image 2) has a much clearer scan and is more readable.

Image 1 – Ancestry.com image of the marriage record of Joel Sawyers and Sallie Bennet..
Image 2 – Same record, scanned at FamilySearch.org

If I had pulled the image from either site, written the citation as if it were an original record, then wanted to come back at some point and find that same record again, I’d be hard-pressed to know where I got it. By citing the website, I’ll always know where the image came from, and so will anyone who reads my citations. They will then be able to pull it up themselves.

Think of how confusing it might be to try to find a record and see an image that is completely different. This example is fairly straightforward, but I’ve found other records where the scan at one site was significantly distorted; darker contrast, splotches, even unreadable in one case.

In conclusion, just remember that even if you aren’t a citation whiz, or even comfortable writing them from scratch, it’s super important to not only say what the source was, but also (when talking about images in a database) which website and database you used to get to that image.

1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, third edition, revised (kindle) (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2017),p. 29.

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