Source Citations for Genealogy

Here at Genealogy Gems we believe that genealogy is FUN, and finding great sources of information is part of that fun. But citing those sources may not be so much! My guest in Elevenses with Lisa episode 60 is going to make the case why source citation is a vital part of great genealogy research and she’s going to give us the resources to help get the job done right.

How to do Source Citations for Genealogy

Elevenses with Lisa episode 60

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Episode 60 Show Notes

Gail Blankenau genealogist

My special guest: Gail Blankenau

Lisa: Genealogy is FUN, and finding great sources of information is part of that fun. But citing those sources may not be so much! My guest in Elevenses with Lisa episode 60 is going to make the case why source citation is a vital part of great genealogy research and she’s going to give us the resources to help get the job done right. Gail Schaefer Blankenau is a history and genealogy research expert, author and speaker. She specializes in German genealogy, reading old German script in Midwestern and Nebraska roots, land records, as well as lineage research.

The Pain of Citing Sources for Genealogy

(01:31) Connie from Port Orchard, Washington wrote in recently to say, “I started researching my family about four years ago and your podcasts are very helpful. Thank you. Like many people, I started with the census where I discovered that a great great grandfather had fought in the Civil War. So, from then on, I was hooked. The reason I’m writing is to ask if you would consider doing an Elevenses episode on source citations. I wanted to do the right thing. So, I started researching for how to cite the digital newspaper articles I’d found. I was quickly bogged down in a quagmire of styles, punctuation, and metallics. That’s all well and good for academia. But I’m not writing a thesis. Thankfully, I have Rootsmagic to handle most of that. However, I still have problems when I want to cite my sources. Anywhere else like online trees, I stare at their form for a while wondering what to put there. And then I usually give up, I know I’m making it harder than it is. But I have an irrational fear that if I do something wrong, Elizabeth Shown Mills is going to find out and scold me. (Editor’s note: She won’t. She’s very, very nice!) You’ve done such a wonderful job of taking the mystery out of so many things. So please consider helping us conquer our fears, of citations.”  Gail, I know that you’re the person who can help us with this. Do you hear this quite often from other genealogists?

Gail: I do. And I actually share her pain because even though I’m a published author in several genealogical journals, as well as genealogical magazines, I don’t always cite the way the editor wants. I just did a master’s thesis in history and I had to change some of my citing, and I was using genealogy citations. So, she’s right, there is a mix of citation styles. It sounds like she’s doing a good job at the main thing, which is to do good research. But when you want to share your research, people have to be able to check it.  I have some ideas for her to maybe consider that we can talk in a little bit more depth today.

Lisa: Excellent. And I like your title, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Gail: And I’ve seen it all. I kind of call it the wild, wild west of citation of evidence because we have different citation styles. We as genealogists really enjoy the detective work. I mean, I love detective stories! And I like to solve puzzles. I think most of us who really get into genealogy are like that. So, when we get to the point where we have to maybe write it up or share it with others, we really need to cite our sources, even for ourselves. But you know what citation can be a little boring. And if you feel that way, you’re not alone at all.

Noel Coward Quote About Footnotes

(05:00) “Having to read footnotes resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.” (Goodreads, Noel Coward Quotes, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/185342-having-to-read-footnotes-resembles-having-to-go-downstairs-to : accessed 15 April 2017.)

Doing source citations feels like interrupting something that we’re enjoying, to do something really not that much fun. But I want to encourage you to cite as you go. And when I say cite as you go, it doesn’t have to be a perfect citation. But it’s important to have all the elements that you’ll need to massage it later. It’s a lot better than going back and redoing what you just did.

Anthony Grafton Quote about Source Citations

(05:35) Historians feel the same way. Anthony Grafton was a historian for Princeton. And he says, “Footnotes seem to rank among the most colorless and uninteresting features of historical practice.” I feel like genealogy is a subset of good history. He does, though, write about citations and their importance, because they counter skepticism from people who feel like there’s nothing that’s true. And there’s nothing that can ever be proven about the past. And so, although it might seem a little bit boring, the fact is, the evidence behind (the source citation) is not. So, we need to be really careful about citing sources, because sometimes we don’t have evidence for our assertions, or we have it but we’re not convincing people that we do.

Definition of a Source Citation

(06:32) I’m going to quote Elizabeth shone Mills because she is considered the Citation Maven for all genealogy. “Citations are statements in which we identify our source or sources for a particular assertion.” (Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained, p. 42.)

I would add that almost more important is that the sources for an assertion actually say what we say it does. We’re going to share some examples where they don’t do that.

Resources for Genealogy Source Citations

(07:08) So here are just a couple of three of the style manuals that I’ve used both as a historian as, as a genealogist:

Source Citations Reference Manuals

I have to say that when I did my thesis, my professor was talking about the census citation. Well, I used this Ancestry.com quick guide. I think it’s really good. Quick Sheet: Your Stripped-Bare Guide to Citing Sources Pamphlet I used it in my thesis. I had to go back and redo every single citation of my senior thesis!

Preparing for Citing Sources

(07:42) I should have asked ahead of time of my thesis advisor, “how do you want me to do it?” So that’s just a lesson we might have to learn. Some people find evidence explained citations to be too long, especially people who are going to do something in print. So, we do need to strike a balance.

Lisa: I think you’re making such a great point that part of the equation is what you’re going to be using the source citation for. Your thesis is a great example. It’s important to find out what’s required and what the guidelines are before you begin your project.

It’s also important to think about who your audience is. I know that Connie was saying that she’s not doing it for a thesis paper, she’s just doing it for her friends and family. Although, of course, it’s super important because her friends and family may want to pick up the genealogy down the road. If they can’t make sense of where any of her information came from, they’ll have to start all over. Right?

The Problem with Source Citations

Gail: Right. And you don’t want to have to recreate the wheel. There are two problems that can occur with citations. One, that it’s not a good enough citation for people to find it. We’ll cover the elements that a good citation should have in just a moment. I’m not one of those people that gets really mad at you if you use a comma instead of a semi colon. I also don’t think there’s any one right way. But once you choose your way, whether it’s Chicago style or Elizabeth Shown Mills, be consistent.

There was an earlier book by Elizabeth Shawn meals that’s much slimmer that a lot of people use because they find Evidence Explained too much. They use her earlier book. I like A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Ninth Edition by Kate Turabian. They’re all based on Chicago style. Turabian gets it done for me most of the time. When I have a question that’s very specific to genealogy I might go to Evidence Explained. There’s no one right way.

Consider the Reader in Citing Sources

I always think about the reader as well as the editor. I find out what the editor wants, but I also think about the reader. We’re all readers of genealogies. Think about what you experienced that didn’t go so well. When you were trying to figure out what someone was doing or saying in an article, or especially in the old genealogies that are not well referenced. Think about that. Pretend you’re that person who wants to find that source.

Let’s start with some ugly examples of source citations, and this should convince you why you need to have good citations. Whatever form you use, they need to be good, and they need to be complete.

Fraudulent Source Citations

There’s a man named Gustave Anjou. We should know something about him just by the fact that he changed his name. This is kind of a pen name that he used. He was a professional genealogist in the early 1900s. His real name was Gustaf Ludvig Jungberg.

He was hired by some wealthy families who had colonial American roots. They hired him to write their genealogies. The reason why I don’t want people to get so hung up on citations is that they lose track of doing good genealogy. He had lots of citations! And they were formatted well, and they were looked good. And most of them were good. Robert Charles Anderson, who is one of the more famous genealogists looked at some of these old genealogies and he said a lot of the citations were went to legitimate sources. And they were. They said what he said they said, but interwoven into all of these beautiful citations he basically put in false information. He told these people that maybe they were related to a nobleman or the signer of the Declaration of Independence, because really, back then a lot of people were doing it for reasons like feeling their roots were maybe a little bit more glorious than they were. The thing is, he was a fraud. But he did cite his work thoroughly, and they were well put together. People can make stuff up. And appearances can be deceiving, which is why I want us to always keep our eye on the main ball of citations that are informational. It doesn’t have to be perfect, especially if they aren’t going to be published. Your viewer Connie doesn’t need to really please anybody but herself. But I do want her to pretend that she’s the reader that might want to track down that citation and see the original. That’s mainly what we want to do.

Robert Charles Anderson did write an article (Fraudulent Lineages and More Fraudulent Lineages) about fraudulent lineages. If you Google Anderson fraudulent lineages you’ll see some of the early genealogies that were bogus. I have some families in there. When I was a beginner, I went to the genealogy library and I looked at some of these genealogies. I put them in my pedigree chart. And then later on when I went back to really do my real research, I had a lot of correcting to do! So, you might as well do it right the first time and know that there are some bad genealogies out there.

Genealogy Source Citation is a Balancing Act

What we have to balance is the importance of citing your sources and getting it right. Source citations are so critical to our own research. We’re running across these kinds of things all the time. So, in a sense, we’re doing them for the benefit of others and making the case that to the best of our knowledge, this is accurate, and this is where I got it.

Source Citations Help When Family Tree Questions Arise

We all at some point probably hear from somebody who says, ‘I don’t know that that’s right.’ They see our online family tree or they want to question something we did. It’s nice to be able to go back and quickly be able to reorient yourself to where you got that information and be able to make that case. It doesn’t make you a bad genealogist to discover ‘Oh, gosh, he’s right, that person isn’t correct, or that document isn’t right.’ Or it may eventually turn out that the information has been disproven. So, we all want those trails leading back so we can make the fixes.

Use Prestigious Genealogy Journals as Sources

(17:19) I’m not saying don’t look at genealogies ever. You might you want to know what’s already been produced. But that literature search should also include the more prestigious genealogy journals.

One of my first major genealogy articles was in the New England genealogical historical register. And it was correcting the Mead genealogy. I think Spencer Mead did a good job on his direct line. But this was a comprehensive genealogy. My line was so wrong that I didn’t even know where he got it. And it wasn’t well referenced. I wrote a three part article, and that journal rarely does three parters. But there were so many errors that I corrected that it merited that large of an article.

Another time a person asked me, “well, where did you get that? Because the tombstone doesn’t say that.” If you have a good citation, then you’re OK. Your citation can even talk about discrepancies. I certainly don’t remember 10 years ago what my thought process was about that. I know I did the analysis.

I’m doing a book right now for the Nickerson Family Association. When I have something that I really feel needs discussion, such as there are two different birth dates or they’re two different death dates for this person, I talked about those sources and the comparison I did in the footnote.

Lisa: Wow, that’s a wonderful piece of information for those who will come after you later down the road. They will be able to see that discussion. I love that idea. What you’ve shown us so far as the ugly. You’ve got some BAD citations, too, right?

An Example of a Bad Genealogy Source Citation

(19:00) Gail: I do. This is going to be my True Confessions. I started when I was really a teenager, and then I really got into genealogy in my teens. When I was in college, I was working at an office at college and taking classes. I ducked into the genealogy library on my lunch break. I’m interested in my second great grandfather, William Nicholas Johnson, and he was a civil war veteran. I’m just pulling everything  off the genealogies shelf. That was back when they actually let you into the stacks. They don’t do that anymore. I had a little notebook that I would write things down in and then think “I’ll get back to it later.” And this was a note I had.

source citation note

Gail’s original note about the source.

And I just laugh at myself, but kind of with the idea that I don’t want to cry about it. It says, “W N Johnson, Life Sketch Civil War.” Well, Johnson is a common, so I don’t know if it’s my guy or not. And it’s Maryville Tribune. I know, he’s from Missouri, but I left out Missouri.  It would have been nice for other people to know, but I knew it. And it says February 18. No year? What book did I get it from? I have no idea. (I wrote it down quickly and then went onto other family lines.) Now it’s many years later, and I run across this cryptic, and I mean, cryptic little intro. That’s why I say cite your sources as you go.

I don’t care if you get them in the right order, but at least write it all down. Because you don’t want to go back to the library and try to figure out what book it came from. I finally did come across it in the Missouri Historical Review. And you can see I circled, basically, I wrote down what I circled.

The original source

The source of the note.

The year was on the prior page, which I didn’t write down. Maybe I thought I’d get to it sooner, but I didn’t. I spent quite a bit of time in the library tracking down the Missouri Historical Review. What if I had done something more like this:

Example of a Proper Genealogy Source Citation

“Historical Articles in Missouri Newspapers, January-June 1925,” Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 21, no. 2 (January, 1927), 321, Nodaway County, Maryville Tribune, 18 Feb 1925, “Life Sketch of W N Johnson.”

It’s super easy for me to check now. So not only do you want to do it for other people, but you want to do it for yourself.

Lisa: It makes me realize that it’s important to know the pieces, the elements within the source citation. Like you said, even if you just jot it down, and you intend to put together the proper citation later back at home at your desk, you’ll have all the pieces that should be there.

Gail: I never would have been able to use that citation in an article. But now I have a proper citation. It also led me to find out whether this was really my guy. By the way, if you do have Missouri ancestors, the Missouri Historical Review is a really neat resource. It’s digitized online now.

That’s a bad citation but there’s another kind of bad citation. I had a Bennett Posey Family. I think he is my fourth great grandfather, maybe third. There are probably thousands of trees online because we’re very prolific. They all have his wife as Rhoda Hobart. As a professional looking back I’m saying this wasn’t really Rhoda Hobart. This Posey Genealogy had really good citations and it looked good. Now I don’t think he was like Gustav Anjou trying to fool anybody. But I took a look at the citation to his will (and wills sometimes do help you to figure out who married whom.) The will doesn’t say at all what he said it said. That’s the other kind of bad citation you can find. I didn’t have a problem finding it. But the citation didn’t support the assertion. I looked at another will and I thought, oh, this was the will he meant. Even though it was closer to supporting it, it turned out that Rhoda Posey was a guy, not a girl. So, I don’t think Bennett married Rhoda Posey the guy. I think he married some other woman that I saw. She’s still blank on my tree because these days I’m doing everybody else’s genealogy research except my own. But that’s an example of another bad citation that didn’t support the assertion.

The Cost of Bad Genealogy Source Citations

Lisa: That’s a great example. And it’s a lot easier to get help from other people, like a reference librarian, if you have a great source citation to offer them.

Gail: Yeah. I mean, they don’t even charge me which is nice. Other times they’ll charge five dollars. But a lot of times, they’ll say, “Well, unless you can give me a good citation I can’t help you.” Or you end up paying a professional to spend two hours chasing something down rather than just giving them where to look in the first place. They might be pulling a record for you that you don’t have access to online. There are a lot of things that can happen. So again, get all the elements, you can always massage it later, you can always check Turabian’s book or something later to get it right. So, source citations save us money! And time is money. No matter how you slice it, you really want to write as much down as possible and always think, “how am I going to find this again?”

Gail: I think I’ve convinced everyone not to get hung up completely on the format or wherever the comma goes. Just make sure you have all the elements that allow you and others to check it and make sure it really is saying what you think it says. I have a style guide for books that I use, so I copy and paste from there. Just be kind to yourself, but also be diligent. So, let’s talk about some good.

How to Create Good Genealogy Source Citations

(27:49) This is the best part! Number one, I want to talk about types.

Types of Source Citations:

  • Source list entry
  • Full reference note
  • Subsequent reference note

Sometimes I notice that people kind of get them confused. There’s a source list entry, which is kind of like the bibliographical reference. This is the actual source. You can have a full reference note, and that is for the first time you cite that particular source. These are usually longer. That’s the one that’s going to allow you to find it.

If you’re writing up your genealogy, then you have following or subsequent reference notes. This is out of Evidence Explained. But they say the same thing that The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition 

 says, and the same thing that A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Ninth Edition by Kate Turabian. They all say the same thing.

Some of you might be MLA, some of you might be MPA. It doesn’t matter. We all have these three different types that we may be using. And here are the elements:

Elements of a Good Source Citation

  • Title or creator of the source
  • Author(s), editors, or compilers
  • Publisher (year published)
  • What it is
  • Page #
  • Film #
  • Record group name and #
  • URL for online source
  • Repository (sometimes)

Now, depending on what you’re looking at, the elements will differ. You’ll want the title of the source or the creator of the source, and sometimes both.

Author(s), editors, or compiles – If you’re citing a book, you will want all the editors, the authors or compilers and say whether it’s an edited work, or a compiled work. You’ll want the publisher if there is one. Some things are self-published, and then I just put in brackets [self published] and the year it was published.

What it is? Is it a marriage book? Is it a Bible? What is it?

Page Number – If it’s paginated, if it’s not page numbered you say unpaginated. Do tell people that it’s not. Don’t make people guess whether there’s a page number so that they don’t obsess about it.

Microfilm Number – If you’re using microfilm, you need to put the film number because that’s what you’re looking at.

Record group name and # – If you’re looking at primary sources include record groups if they’re pertinent. If I’m at the courthouse, I include the courthouse and where the courthouse is. Sometimes I’ll put such and such a county, because how many Washington counties are in the United States?! Make sure you’re sure you say the state. Say that it’s in Bellevue, Nebraska, not just Nebraska. There might be more than one place like that in a state, not necessarily the same named county, but there might be towns with the same name nearby.

URL for online source – Obviously, if the source is online, you need to give the URL.

Repository (sometimes) – And sometimes you will want to have the repository where it used to be located. If you look at a book, say what repository you found it. If I looked at a book, if it’s a famous book, you know, and every genealogy library has it, you don’t have to put the repository. But obviously, when I’m citing the fugitive slave warrant, that I found at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, I need to say where it is because no one’s going to be able to find it unless they know where to look.

All of those elements mean there’s no one right way, but you do have to make sure all the elements are in it. Once you choose the style, be consistent. If you’re using A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, use it consistently. Don’t go off and do something else unless it really is an unusual thing that Turabian doesn’t seem to cover in her book and just try to do the best you can.

Lisa: I imagine it’s just like with naming your files on your hard drive. It’s probably more important to be consistent than to have it be somebody else’s view of perfection. You want it to include all the important pieces. So, that’s reassuring for folks to hear there isn’t just one right way. You’ve offered up some of the styles and things that we should be looking for. And I know you’ve got other resources as well that will help guide us in the right direction, right?

Gail: I do. The book Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills is really good, but I don’t use it as much as I used to. And I do think it can be really daunting. There are people out there who will say your citation is wrong. They’ll say, “Well, if you want to stress the document, start with this, if you want to stress the person start with that.” I don’t know what they’re looking at. And I’m thinking “well, yes, it is actually that I wanted to stress the document, because this is a document and analysis. So, the purpose of what you’re using it for really, really matters. Just keep that in mind. Again, for your listener, she should stop stressing about it because she’s probably doing a good job.

Genealogy Software Source Citations & Style Guides

(30:00) By the way of some of those reports – I don’t want to use names – but their databases that we use, I don’t always like the output that they do for their citations. But at least they’re there. But a lot of them are a little jumbled. And they don’t seem to adopt any particular style, though they have all the elements usually that you need. So that’s good. But I’m not into doing that.

I usually do my citations in a separate Word file. I always make my own style guide for every project.  I have one source that was in what’s now Poland, but it was Pomerania. And I had my own style guide for that, because I was using an online Polish website that had digitized records. The records were in German, so I could read them. So for my citations for that I had the Polish name, I had the German, and then I have the English translation. I just decided I don’t want to rewrite every citation every time I cite this. So, for my reference, I had a style guide. And that’s a really good idea. Put the work in at the beginning, in a Word file and say, “Okay, I’m gonna spend some time maybe a whole day figuring how I want to cite it, but that’s what I’m going to use.”

Lisa: I like that idea. Using a template, it speeds things up, and it keeps it consistent.

(31:51) Gail: Exactly, exactly. And again, this was something that a lot of people weren’t citing, because they’re really daunted by the Polish website. It took me a while to learn how to navigate it. I don’t speak Polish, I speak German and English in French, and some Spanish but I learned it because I’m a genealogist and that’s what we do. Right? Genealogists are great learners. They will power through the most difficult things to get to where they want to go. So, we don’t want to let the daunting nature of citations continue to stop us from doing it at all. Better to do it, do it in your own style, your own template that you’ve come up with, hopefully, based on these resources that you’re providing, but at least doable rather than saying “Oh, I’ll do that later.”

Like I said, you can always rearrange some things or add an element later. But you need the main things, and you need to be consistent. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble later on if you cite what you see. And this is also in Evidence Explained, but all the other style guides say the same thing.

If I’m holding the death certificate, I cite the death certificate. If I have a Bible, I cite the Bible and where it is who owns the Bible. Sometimes you have to say as of the year you referenced it. I may not know where it is this year, but at least you’ve got breadcrumbs.

(In the video Gail shared an example of a photocopied of vital records for James Arnold of Rhode Island.) I’m citing the book because I’m not looking at it online. I always check the original whenever I can. The reason I looked at the original is because there was a discrepancy in two sources. And then Cirilo said, oh, by the way, this is a copy too. And we don’t know where the originals are, we think they were destroyed when they were copied. He even gave me who copied it, and when. So that made it into my citation because this is as original as it gets. Sometimes when people transcribe, they don’t mean to, but they make an error. But that wasn’t the case here. But you have to do your due diligence. Whenever you see something that doesn’t make sense, or you have a discrepancy, you’re going to have to track down the original. And I still think it’s better to have the original anyway.

In another case, another Rhode Island one, I had a Samuel Reiss Smith within the vital records. But when I tracked down that original, it said Samuel Royal Smith, so it was my guy. I knew my guy was saying Royal because I had the Bible Arnold had, he just had a hard time reading the handwriting. So I went back and looked at the handwriting. Nope, this is Royal. So, you do want to get the original as much as possible. It made my case.

Citing Genealogical Image Sources

Which brings us to the very important subject of images. Most of us are using lot  of images online. Remember, images might be enhanced.  And that’s sometimes a good thing. It’s also sometimes a bad thing because there might be some things left out. The other thing is that there may be another one out there, but it may not be the same, kind of like the editions of books. And the series might have a gap.

In my thesis, I’m citing lots of censuses, and slave schedules, because I’m exploring some enslaved women who left enslavement in 1858 from Nebraska territory. I’m using the 1860 territorial census, and it’s online at Ancestry. It’s also online at FamilySearch. When I go to the Nebraska State Library and Archive, there’s a page at the front of the census for their county that lists all these slaves, all the enslavers and the number of people they have enslaved. And that is not online. But it’s critical if you’re looking for African American ancestors. So the census enumerator didn’t follow the rules. They were supposed to fill out a slave schedule separately, but they didn’t because it was a territory. So, they made it up. And there is a record, but it’s not online. So remember, if you’re looking for something and you’re thinking, Oh my gosh, it’s not there, you might have to kind of dig and look at the film and maybe even have someone go to an archive and say, “can you look at this?” Sometimes people don’t mean to but when they’re filming, they miss a page and, of course, it’s going to be the page that your ancestors on!

Lisa: Of course, that’s always the way it works. You know, Gail, you mentioned that images might be enhanced. Tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that.

Citing Enhanced Images

(39:22) Gail: They might be enhanced by changing the colors so that it’s a little bit better and sharper, which is good. But for instance, I did a lot of my initial German research off of microfilms now at Matricula. For the Catholic records, they’re in color, and they’ve enhanced it by coloring it and sharpening them so they’re easier to read. There’s a lot of underlining done in German records, and sometimes the underlines are in red, and they didn’t show up on the microfilm and they show up on the digital image. So you do need to go back and kind of look at original images and see what you’re not seeing online.  

Lisa: Being able to make a notation about this in the source citation. I mean, these days, my goodness, any digital image could be altered.

Gail: Exactly, and people can add things to them. And I have an example of why it’s important to say, even when you’re looking at what you think is an image of an original, (which is generally in genealogical standards considered almost as good as the original) But sometimes it’s not. So, this is where Evidence Explained is right. You do need to be really thorough. Are we doing good work? That’s always the question you need to ask yourself. Does that source that I’m citing actually support my assertion or not?

So this the top one, as you can see, it’s white on black. Now of course, that’s the microfilm. But we’re pretty sure the original wasn’t black on white. But they were having trouble getting a good image. So they changed it. I cited the film St. Andrews Verdan Evangelical Church. It’s unindexed. And it’s a baptism, 1800, and I give the FHL microfilm. And I added, thank goodness, citing film from a manuscript in Berlin. Now, she may not like that, she might want me to say what manuscript in Berlin it was. But you know what I feel like – and my history thesis person said – I cited too much. So can you find it? Yes, you can. That’s the question. But the reason it was important for me to put the extra thing about where the film and the manuscript is, is because Ancestry digitized it years later. And you start with Ancestry, usually, with the name of the database. You say that it’s a digital image, so that you know that you’re actually looking at a scan of some original. And in truth, St. Andrews Verdan Evangelical Church, and this manuscript is in the Niedersachsen, or Lower Saxony archive. And do you see any differences in those two things? Because I do right away. Number one, it’s a better image. But there’s a 42 on the lower one, and there’s no 42 on the other one, and the other one has page numbers, and the other one does not. They’re the same record, same church. If you don’t do a lot of German genealogy, what you don’t know is German parishes make duplicate records by law. So one is the duplicate and one is the original. The original is probably added to later by the actual parish person. Or the duplicate, they went back later and said, “This is hard to use, because we don’t have any page numbers or entry numbers, so we’re going to add them.” I love looking at originals, because you can see that it’s different ink, you can see whether it’s a different color. And with imagery, you can always see that. So that’s two, same person say project. One is easier to find the record than the other because they added the 42. And you know, all those stamps on your digital image at the census record. Those weren’t there originally. That’s why we say page numbers stamp or page number written.

Knowing the Genealogy Records Makes for Better Source Citations

Lisa: Exactly which can get very confusing when people are trying to go back and find things. You’re really also making the case of how important it is to familiarize yourself with the records that you are going to be using. You can discover things like the fact that in Germany they legally had to make these copies and they distributed them and that would be different in a different country where you’re researching. I love reading the full descriptions of the records, whatever I can get my hands on. Genealogy websites can tells you more about the background of the record, how they acquired it, etc. All of that could help support them making an even better source citation.

Learn more: Watch Elevenses with Lisa episode 37 Provenance: The Story Behind Your Genealogy Records.

Citing Sources of Sources

(46:52) So the other thing, and I think I’ve kind of already alluded to it, is sources of sources. And this example is one from you know, the olden days. You can look at this in what they call the Massachusetts brown books. And this one is actually an image. So I’m going to add that I got it at AmericanAncestors.org.

Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 (Online Database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2016), https://www.americanancestors.org/DB190/i/7687/338/141204368, Danvers Births, Vol. 1:338, citing First Congregational Church (Salem Village), Danvers.

Notice at the very end I say citing First Congregational Church, Salem village, Danvers. So it’s in the Danvers VRs, but it doesn’t mean that they were in Danvers, proper. So a lot of people might stop with Danvers, but that CR1 means Congregational Church, Salem village.

How do we find that out? If you’re online, you go to the beginning of the book and look at the abbreviations. Always see what’s in here. Does it matter whether your ancestor was a Baptist, Unitarian, Universalist, Congregationalist or a Quaker? Absolutely! So do know that those little citation citing something else, you need to kind of run that down and put that in your citation. That’ll help you and other people to make sure you know which John Smith you’re talking about. How many John Smiths do I have in my background? Quite a few! Was my John Smith, a Quaker? Well then it may or may not be the person who was at Salem Village in Danvers. And look: there’s two congregational churches in Danvers, one is Salem village, and one is in Middle Precinct.

Discussing Discrepancies in Source Citations

(48:21) And again, talk about discrepancies. You know, my Bristol one? I had that said he was born 11th December, and one that said he was born ninth December. And both of them were copies of original records that can’t be found. So, I just say, I looked for the original records, did my due diligence can’t be found, here’s what may have happened, they’re two days apart, but it’s definitely the same guy, and here’s why. So always handle discrepancies in your source citations.

Most Commonly Used Source Citations

(48:42) Here are two source citations that are fine:

  • Williams-Schultz Marriage License and Certificate, Saunders County, Nebraska, Marriage Book 5:162, RG204, Film #3B, Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln.
  • Saunders County Clerk (Nebraska), Marriage Book 5:162, RG 204, Film 3B, Williams-Schultz Marriage License and certificate, NSHS, Lincoln.

Somebody might write to you later and say that I’m wrong about this. But I have looked in Evidence Explained, I’ve looked in The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition and either one of these is correct. But I wanted to show you why there’s no one right way.

I started with the first one William Shultz marriage license. And I like to use that format more where you say what it is, especially when you’re using end notes. I don’t know about you, but I really liked footnotes better because I could check right away. But a lot of editors and a lot of history books, you have to go to the end notes. So, if I want to check and there’s just tons and tons of footnotes, how much easier is it if you’re checking where I got the William Schultz marriage to start with a William Shultz marriage what it is? It’s easier to find for people, right? So, I always try to pretend I’m the reader who hasn’t been part of this big project that I know inside out.

Now, if it’s his license and certificate put that, because in some record sets the licenses are in separate books than the certificate. This one, the licenses is above and the certificate is below so it’s all one page. But I just let people know they’re both on here. But it’s not wrong for me to start with Saunders County Clerk who’s the creator, the marriage book, five 162, the record group because I’m looking at the archive. But I’m still looking at a film, I’m not at the courthouse. If I wanted to go to the Saunders County courthouse, then I would just say Saunders, county clerk marriage book five. And then I would say Wahoo, Nebraska, because that’s where Saunders county courthouse is. Now they know I went to the courthouse. You can do it either way. But make sure all the elements are there so people can check it.

Now I know some of your listeners might be wanting to publish an article or publish it for posterity, which is always good. I do encourage people, especially if you’ve done some really original research, that’s a breakthrough, I say get it published. Get credit for what you do, because people are going to take it from you, and they’re never going to cite you. I have a friend who’s done some incredible research. And I keep saying you got to write it up, you got to write it up! You are the expert witness. And it will actually help you to write it up, too. Because there’s where you see, “oh, maybe my train of thought was not as clean as I thought it was” or “Oh, I need to do a little bit more.”

The Right Way to Do Genealogy Source Citations

(51:45) You might be thinking, “just tell me the right way.” But when I’m writing, the right way is how the editor wants it. You have to study the publication. (In the case of writing it up for your family, you are the editor who gets to decide.)

For the footnotes for instance. 1790 census in this particular journal, which is peer reviewed by professional genealogists: 1790 U. S. Census, East Greenwich, Kent Co., R. I., p. 59.

Here’s a footnote that is a published footnote in there. It’s following footnote, but it’s a good footnote. Notice that they abbreviate County, they abbreviate Rhode Island. And as some people might not even put R. I., they might just do RI. That would be just as good, but that’s not how this editor wants it.

Here’s a very similar footnote for this journal, New England Historical Genealogical Register, another prestigious journal very well: 1790 U. S. Census, Norwalk and Stamford, Fairfield County, Connecticut, roll 1, p. 326.

I mean, if you read it in there, it’s been well researched. It’s been well cited. That’s their footnote. Notice they spell county out.

Is one right, the other one wrong? No, they’re just different. And they’re both helpful. You can find them.

And here’s Evidence Explained: 1790 U. S. Census, Fairfield County, Norwalk and Stamford, digital image, Ancestry.com (http:www.ancestry.com : access date), entry for Smith Mead, p. 326 (written) line 22, citing NARA M637, Roll 1.

That very same one that I just showed you from New England. And you know, if you’re going to print it on a paper, paper is expensive. Ink is expensive. So they’re going to do the shorter one. It’s just how it is.

Access Dates in Genealogy Source Citations

(53:15) And now access date. There’s still a debate about that. There’s a debate about whether you have to do HTTPS www ancestry.com. Some people are just taking that out, because everybody’s so familiar with Ancestry.com now, we may not need that whole URL. We just put ancestry.com, and everybody knows that. Or familysearch.org, access date. I usually put the year at least, because I’m already noticing that Ancestry.com has re- titled some of their databases. Just handle explaining your decision in the beginning of your book or paper. Explain where you’re coming from.

What I’m asking for is balance. I feel like there’s been a pendulum swing, because genealogists used to be really looked down upon by professional historians. There was a lot of sloppy genealogy done in the old days. Now I feel like sometimes we swing too far, you know.  I do not always put that it’s the NARA publication number, blah, blah, blah, I put that in the intro. And then I shorten it because it’s going to be printed up and we don’t have the paper to do it. We just can’t waste all that paper. I’m being an ecologist here. But most good editors do strike that balance. They understand that, you know, it’s all about sources. It’s all about supporting your assertions. And as long as you’re doing that, you’re doing well.

Lisa: I like that. That’s a wonderful note to end on, which is, as long as you’re keeping these your audience in mind, you’re being consistent. You’ve turned to really reliable source citation reference materials like you’ve given us here. And we know we’re going to do a good job.

Gail: I want you to focus on the evidence, and the citations are your help. They’re not an obstacle, they should be your help.

Lisa: I like that idea very, very much. And the evidence is really the fun part, isn’t it? And we have to make sure we’re not so stressed out about source citations that we aren’t thinking clearly and evaluating the evidence that we’re coming across.

Gail: Right, exactly. I mean, I do think there’s some people who get too hung up on that, and they’re spending time on it that they could be using to do a little bit more analysis.

Lisa: Yeah, that’s a great point. And it’s easy to want to hyper-focus on what you feel like you can control. And you know, a lot of times, you can’t control the evidence, you can’t control your access to things. But we want to keep that end goal in mind of just do the best research that we can do. And you’ve certainly helped us with that.

Gail, tell folks, if they want to learn more about what you do, if they want to talk to you about research, how do they find you online.

Resources

 

Questions and Comments

Please leave your questions and comments below. Gail was kind enough to answer questions from the live chat:

Q: I’m used to APA citation format, is the citation format for genealogy a lot different?
A: Excellent question. It is similar, but different enough that you may want to use Turabian or Evidence Explained. Sometimes when I am in Worldcat.org I will look at the different style formats they have in a dropdown menu just to see what the differences are.  Once you decide on a format, then be consistent.

Q: If we use Roots Magic, is it best to use their templates or should we create our own style? It is up to you. 
A: The templates can be very helpful as we are less likely to leave important elements out. In my own experience, it takes me longer to input through templates, but the difference in time is probably not so much that it would be discouraging.

Q: Tips for using Ancestry’s citations? 
A: Although they have improved their citations through the years, Ancestry’s citations do not always meet the genealogical standard. A resource I use is “QuickSheet: Citing Ancestry.com Databases & Images, Evidence Style*”

Q: How do you cite inherited genealogy scans like family Bible, letters, and documents that you don’t know where it came from?
A: I would consult Turabian for this. As far as you can trace provenance, you need to have that in the first entry citation.  Here is an example:

[1] Family Data, Joanna Edmonds Boomer (1819-1895) Bible, no publication date as the pages were torn out of original Bible and were found loose in the genealogy file of Mary Otis Boomer, wife of Rev. Israel Oscar Boomer, son of Washington Boomer and grandson of Joanna Edmonds Boomer, by her granddaughter and present owner, name private.
When you have repetitive items do you use IBID only changing the date and page?  Yes.  If you are writing for an editor, check with their style guide first.

Q: Where is Gail inputting her style guide source information within her genealogy software?  Am I misunderstanding, she has a quick reference sheet she’s created in word, but how is she inputting it into her software of choice? 
A: You are not misunderstanding.  I have style guides for big projects that have a lot of repetitive elements.  I have these in Word.  I copy and paste into the manuscript.  If putting it into software, I still copy and paste, but not all at once, as different programs have you input titles, authors, etc., in different order. Example: Census (U. S.) 1850-1870
*year U.S. census, * Co., *state abbreviated, *township, p. #, image database, database URL, dwelling#/family #, *name of individual and/or head of household.

Q: What does it mean in a citation to say “citing ” (as in “citing film”)? 
A: It is a good practice to mention what you are either looking at or holding in your hand.  So, I might say “Washington Deaths,” image database, website URL, accessed date, entry for NAME, date of death, citing FHL microfilm, etc.  This tells the reader that I am using an image database, but that the digital image is a copy of a microfilm, not the original paper death register. So, I cite the microfilm, because that is what the image represents. I do not always use the terminology, “citing” but often I do when I am dealing with digital image databases. Some researchers still use access dates, but for instance, in my Master’s thesis, they did not want so many dates and long citations, so we said accessed in 2020, or in some cases, “various dates in 2020,” rather than littering it up with long date formats.  

Q: Are templates for sources to be done for each project? Can templates be used over and over?
A: I use my Word style guides over and over, regardless of project.  However, I also have special projects where I have a separate one. What I normally do is take my “usual” style guide and adapt it or add to it. For instance, I have one for when I am using the Polish State Archive, with my “normal” citations, plus the idiosyncrasies of that archive, another for when I’m primarily using Archion, and another one for the large book project (mainly Massachusetts but ultimately nationwide and into Australia), and of course, I have a separate one for the book I am writing under contract.

Q: My mother wrote a lot of things down for the family historian (me), some were dictated and some in her handwriting and actually some from a previous generation. For my personal genealogy can I use these as a citation? I plan on scanning her notes and adding it to my computerized tree and the originals in my wonderful books of saved documentation. (The class you did many moons ago)? Thanks for a wonderful cl
A: I love this question.  Yes, I would cite your mother’s work. If dictated and you were the writer, you may want to call it interview notes, and the date, if you have it.  Her own notes you would cite her as the author/compiler.  Again, I would consult Evidence Explained and/or Turabian for this situation, and then decide what format and order you want to use. Once you establish your “first entry” note, you can then use a short form note for any other references to that particular part of your mother’s research.  

 

 

DNA Q&A with Crista Cowan of Ancestry.com

Get answers to the most commonly asked questions about DNA from Crista Cowan of Ancestry® / AncestryDNA®.

Answers to DNA ethnicity questions

Episode 62

In Elevenses with Lisa episode 62 Lisa Louise Cooke and Crista Cowan will discuss:

  • Why DNA ethnicity results change over time
  • What Genetic Communities can tell you about your family history
  • How often you should check your DNA results
  • Which DNA results you should focus on 
  • What to do if your best DNA match doesn’t have an online family tree
  • How to successfully reach out to your DNA matches
  • What you can do for free at Ancestry

Two Ways to Watch this “DNA Q&A” Episode

Watch the video replay in the video player above or click the watch on YouTube button to watch at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel.  

Get Your DNA Test Kit or Subscription

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Premium Member Exclusive Handout

Premium Members can download the exclusive ad-free show notes PDF (that includes a handy menu to jump to the topic you need when you need it) in the Resources section at the bottom of the page. Not a member yet? Learn more and join the Genealogy Gems and Elevenses with Lisa family here

Episode 62 Show Notes 

(Please note: This interview transcription has been minimally altered for ease of reading and clarity.)

Lisa: AncestryDNA is one of the leading DNA testing companies that has added DNA science to our genealogy toolkit. If you’ve tested your DNA, those results have become one of the important records that you’re using to build your family tree. The interesting thing about these records is that they’re quite different from other types because they evolve and change over time. The results themselves aren’t changing, but our interpretation and the information that we’re able to glean from them is evolving and continues to do so as more people get tested. Here to give us insight into the latest innovations over at AncestryDNA is the corporate genealogist for Ancestry, better known as the Barefoot Genealogist, Crista Cowen.

Crista: Thank you.

Why Have My DNA Ethnicity Results Changed?

Lisa: Hey, happy to have you here. We love to get together and chat about genealogy here at Elevenses with Lisa, and DNA is always on people’s minds. I know that one of the really common questions that I get a lot is around ethnicity, and about changes to the ethnicity percentages. Sometimes people see the results and they’re really excited about them. But then Ancestry  publishes a new update and things look different. It can be a big surprise. Tell us a little bit about how often these updates happen and what causes them. Why do they change?

Crista: In order to answer that question, you kind of have to back up a little bit and understand the concept of reference panels.

Understanding DNA Reference Panels

When AncestryDNA started in 2012, we hadn’t sold any DNA kits yet. But we had purchased scientific reference panels from others who had been studying DNA for about a decade at that point. This was a group of people with deep roots in a particular place in the world that we can compare customer DNA to. So, as a customer takes their DNA test, the first process we run it through is this ethnicity estimate. We compare them to this reference panel. As our research team has expanded their reach, and then now we have 20 million people who’ve taken the ancestry DNA test, we’ve been able to identify candidates in our customer pool who are eligible to be part of that reference panel. Then the reference panel grows. And so statistically as it grows, those results are going to get more refined. They’re going to change a little bit. As the science advances, we also learn new ways to compare the data so that it’s more accurate.

Ancestry has been releasing an ethnicity update about once a year, usually in the fall. It’s just because we keep growing that reference panel, and because of the advances in science about how those algorithms work. And you get a lot of new people, obviously, on a regular basis for testing, so they’re adding to it.

Lisa: You started with that initial reference panel that you got somewhere else. Do you ever bring in other reference panels that become available to kind of speed up the process of the growth?

Crista: Yeah, we do. We’ve purchased a few different reference panels from research groups. But primarily, the growth now is coming not just from our own customer base. Also our team of genetic scientists are looking for individuals in places around the world that are underrepresented in our reference panel in order to increase the sample size. They’re excellent.

Lisa: Sometimes, the updates, they come out and people look at and they go, “that looks different! And now it’s saying this and not that.” Tell us a little bit about that because there’s some rhyme and reason behind why that happens.

Two Reasons Why DNA Ethnicity Results Change

Crista: There is. There are actually two challenges that our science team faces. One has to do with place, and one has to do with time.

What we may know as a place right now, likely didn’t exist 300, 500, or 1000 years ago. The boundaries have changed. The people that have migrated in and out of that place have changed. And so one of our challenges is to label those ethnicity estimate locations as something that people will recognize and be able to associate with, but fully recognizing that 1000 years ago that place may have had people there who were called something very different.

The second challenge we have is that time-based challenge. We use this reference panel of living people. But what we estimate is with this data, we’re showing you where your DNA came from 500 to 1000 years ago, and most of us don’t have trays that go back that far.

Lisa: Right, exactly. So how do you zero in on that? How do people make sense of when they see it, that they understand the context of the time frame?

Crista: We try to provide a lot of contextual data and a lot of people don’t even realize it’s there.

When you’re looking at your ethnicity estimate, you can click on any one of those – there’s usually two or even three drill-down screens – that give you some of that historical background, and some of that information about the time period that we’re covering, and what the names of some of the people who lived there were.

Why Do My DNA Results Now Say I’m from Scotland?

For example, Scotland was a big one, in this last (AncestryDNA) update. A lot of people ended up with Scotland as an ethnicity. But really what we’re looking at is who were the Britons? Who were the Celts? Who were the Gauls? And how to all those people, so many hundreds of years ago, how did they migrate in and out of those places? And what would that admixture look like, so that we can tell you. But if we said, “Oh, you’re Celt, Gall, or Britain, even some people wouldn’t understand what that meant. So we label it, Scotland, and then we expect people to drill down into that other information that we’ve provided by clicking through.

Encouraging AncestryDNA Users to Use the Website

Lisa: Do you find that people fully utilize this site? I’m thinking about how folks go to so much trouble and expense to get tested, and yet may not be taking full advantage of the results and the website. I imagine you see a lot of backend data. What kind of usage do you see? I think I’ve seen some recent updates that you guys have been doing to kind of help prompt people to get more involved and drill down.

Crista: Yeah, for sure. One of the things that we’ve done is we have a mobile app. What we’re discovering is that for a lot of people, their entry point, both to family history and through DNA is through mobile. So we’ve made some of the mobile prompts a little bit more prominent and a little bit easier to navigate. And then of course, we’re learning from some of that and applying it to the desktop version.

Another thing that we have that wasn’t introduced when AncestryDNA was first introduced, it took several years, is what we call our genetic communities. And that helps to give some additional context to some of those ethnicities as well.

What are Ancestry Genetic Communities?

Lisa: I’d love to have you talk more about genetic communities. It’s fascinating to see them and to see their evolution. They’ve really moved along quite quickly, haven’t they? Just knowing that there are many people who maybe have never looked at this, tell us what they’re missing and how to take advantage of it.

Crista: Yeah, so that first algorithm that we run against your DNA is comparing your DNA to that reference panel of people to give you those ethnicity estimates. Those are the ones with the percentages.  There’s always going to be a percentage next to it. But the communities are a total evolution based on who’s testing and the family trees that are available.

Ancestry has 20 million people who’ve taken the DNA test, and 100 million family trees on our site. And here’s kind of how this works. As you test, you’re matched to other people who have taken the test. And I think the average AncestryDNA test taker has something like 75,000 matches. It’s kind of mind-blowing! But the idea is that the data underneath all of that means that we’re able to really clearly see networks of matches. So even if we didn’t know anything about your family tree, or anything about your ethnicity, just based on the matching data alone, we start to see these clusters or networks of people who all match each other. And so then because we have this rich family tree data, we can go into that network of 1000s of matches, and we can say what do they all have in common? And what we start to see is, the data very clearly points to specific birth locations within their tree within the last 200 years. So, your ethnicity estimate is looking at 1000 years ago, but those communities are where members of your family have lived within the last 200 years. And we’ve now got more than 1500 of those around the world.

Lisa: That’s amazing. And of course, if the person is in the tree they have timeframe associated with them as well, not just place, because like you said it’s just lurching the whole thing closer in time to us, which is really exciting. Right?

Crista: Yeah. And if you start to think about that time piece, right, so we’re looking at tree data 100 to 200 years ago because of this network effect. But what’s possible is as the network continues to grow, and as the science continues to get better, we may not only be able to connect you to specific genetic communities, but also show you migration paths from your original ethnic origins over time, which then allows people to have an entire complete family history story without ever starting a family tree themselves. Hopefully, that then leads them into it because they want to know “which branch of my family tree does this represent?”

My AncestryDNA match doesn’t have an online family tree!

dna match with no tree no problem rootstech cooke southard

Video and exclusive handout is included in Premium Membership.

Lisa: You’re talking about some people don’t have trees. Of course, that’s just the bane of every genealogist right? They go and they look, and they say “this person doesn’t have a tree, and they’re my best match!!” I know you get a lot of people who test –  maybe they saw the commercials on TV – and they go, “Oh, that looks really cool. I’m gonna do that.” But they were not doing genealogy. How does that break down?

Crista: Yeah, so you know, it’s so funny that you say that, because anytime anybody complains about matches not having trees, I always send them to your RootsTech presentation that you did with Diahan Southard about No  Tree, No Problem. Because, because the reality is like, you can figure out a lot from a match even if they don’t have a family tree.

(This video presentation is included in Genealogy Gems Premium Membership. Watch the video and download the handout. Subscription required. Learn more here.)

There are probably about half of my matches that do not have any tree at all. And we see that that’s pretty consistent across the board, which means those are most likely people who this is their first foray into family history.

I actually was just on a call this morning with a woman who took the DNA test about four years ago. She had no idea there even was a match list. She didn’t think she could build a tree because she thought she needed a subscription. So, she just took the test to get the ethnicity estimate, and somehow ignored all the emails Ancestry sent her to telling her to check out her new matches or startup a tree. But once she was contacted by a match. One of the best things you can do for those matches who don’t have trees, is send them  messages. She got this message from one of her close matches. It piqued her curiosity. She’s like, “how does this person know who I am?” She discovered the match list, and she started a tree. And she’s now had this whole family history journey where she’s figured out who her biological father is. Uncles and half sibling…and so for those of us who have trees and who are involved in family history, recognize those people taking a DNA test. That’s their first step in the door. And it’s up to us, I think, sometimes to nurture them through that door by engaging with them through messaging or sharing information that we might have discovered, in a non-threatening way, hopefully.

Lisa: So they’re testing, and they’re thinking, “Oh, I want to find out my ethnicity is” and not even realizing that there’s this whole matching thing going on. Do you find that a lot of those kinds of folks eventually get bitten by the bug? And I wanted to re-emphasize what you said, that you don’t have to have a subscription to add the tree. Tons of people don’t realize that.

What You Can Do for Free at AncestryDNA

Crista: Yeah, if you’ve taken a DNA test, and that’s the only thing you’ve paid for, you haven’t paid for an Ancestry subscription to access the 80 billion records on the site, then you can still start a family tree. That’s a free service on Ancestry. For anybody who has a free registered guest account, or anybody who used to have a subscription and cancelled it at some point, you can still work on your family tree. And yeah, that’s something that a lot of people don’t realize.

You can also and this is something else people don’t realize, respond to messages from other users. The Message Center is a free service. You can send messages, you can initiate contact with any of your DNA matches without a subscription as well.

Lisa: So you’re really getting to take full advantage of the whole DNA thing, even if you aren’t currently doing the subscription and doing the genealogical records and all of that.

Ancestry Website Interface Updates

I was watching your video recently, I guess it was the June update, and you were talking about how you got to see some of that backend data, and you saw that people weren’t really interacting with the website. I love the new buttons and the ability to add this is a son, this is a nephew, etc. Tell people a little bit about that. And how is that going? Is the rollout done yet? And are you seeing some great response?

Crista: Yeah, so we do continue to make innovations to the match list and how people interact with it. Of course, two years ago at RootsTech we introduced the custom groups with 24 different colors. And it was innovative for those of us who were deep into family history. We had this hypothesis, though, that new users would find that fun and interactive as well. Unfortunately, new users, especially those who’d never considered family history before, didn’t have the mental construct around a pedigree chart or sides of the family, and didn’t even have any idea how to group their matches. And so that had really low usage. The usage it had was among really core hardcore genealogists and people into genetic genealogy.

So, we’ve been doing a lot of testing over the last year trying to figure out how to solve the problem of new users coming to the match list and looking at it and going, “That’s great.” Now what we wanted was to give them something actionable to do. This has been released, and it’s been rolled out to all users, I think, as of last week. Every match has a little button on it that just says, Do you know this person? Yes. And if you don’t, you can click learn more to find out more about that experience. But as soon as you click Yes, it then asks you to assign a side of your family. So, you can say, “Oh, yes, I know this person, they’re on my mother’s side.” And then once you do that, it asks you if you know the specific relationship.

Here’s another little nuance that we’re helping train people into, in both in interaction, but also what family history really means. We give them a list of the possible relationships based on how much DNA they share. One of the things that DNA sometimes uncovers a surprises, and you might think this person is your full sibling that the DNA says otherwise. Or you might think, you know, whatever the relationship might be. So, we give you those options to assign that relationship. And then that fills another customer request, which is when you select the relationship, it updates from a predicted relationship on that match, which is usually a range of cousinship, to what the specific relationship is based on your assignment.

Lisa: I love it. I mean, you guys are in the driver’s seat in terms of knowing and understand the technology. It’s wonderful that you’re helping to guide people to get more out of it, and to get onboard quicker.

How Accurate are Ancestry’s DNA Tests?

I have to ask you this question, because I imagine you have gotten this question a lot and I’d love to know how you answer it. How accurate are the Ancestry DNA test results? I heard somebody asked that at a conference once and I wanted to sit by and listen and see what the person said. What do you tell people when they ask you that?

Crista: You know, it’s such an interesting question, because accuracy can be measured any number of ways. And we need to know what you’re talking about when you say accuracy.

When you ask, “is this person on the top of my match list listed as my parent or child, how accurate is that?” It’s like 100% accurate that that is how much DNA you share with this person. And that that is either the nature of the relationship, or you’ve got a parent with an identical twin. So accuracy, in that case, we’re super confident.

When you ask about accuracy of ethnicity results, we call it an estimate for a reason. One of the things you’ll discover when you click through to view it is that there’s actually a range. That top level percentage you’re seeing is an average of 1000 different times that the algorithm has been run against your DNA and that reference panel. That’s because of just the nature of the way that those results are analyzed. And compared to that reference panel means there’s going to be some swing around an average. And again, we release those updates every year. Because again, as the reference panel growth, there’s more refinement possible.

Lisa: Yes, exactly. Good answer. I like that answer.

The Most Popular DNA Question

What are some of the most common questions that you get about DNA? I imagine there might be some folks watching her going, “yes, yes. Yes, that’s what I was wondering! What do you hear?

Crista: I will tell you what our number one question is. And I bet a lot of your viewers have the same question, and a lot of people at conferences have the same question. We see it on social media all of the time. The most popular DNA question is “where is my Native American?”

Lisa: They still want the princess they’re looking for?

Crista: It’s amazing to me how prevalent and pervasive that narrative is in so many families. They take a DNA test with full confidence that it’s going to tell them that there’s 17 or 12 or 8%, indigenous North American, when the reality is if they do have a Native American ancestor, it is most likely that that person lived three or 400 years ago, and that they just didn’t inherit those bits of DNA. The inheritance of DNA is random, and a lot of new people in family history haven’t really wrap their brains around what that means yet. They think they get half of everything and haven’t done the math to calculate what that means. Or they were told that a parent or grandparent was full Native. I grew up with that narrative in my family, my grandfather boasted of the fact that he was a quarter of a quarter Native American. He was born in Indian Territory, and I think that’s probably partially where that started from. And everybody claims the features. But the reality is, he was not, there is no evidence of that in the family tree once the research has been dug into. But I still have cousins taking DNA tests and fully expecting it to show up and kind of freaking out when it doesn’t.

Native American DNA

Lisa: Is Native America a large reference panel that is well represented?

It was not in the beginning, but we have been collecting additional samples. It used to be, back in 2012 when we started doing DNA testing, if you had Native American DNA, we would just tell you, Native American, and that was all of the Americas: North, Central and South. We now have, I think, nine different regions of native indigenous American, so we can split it out across the two continents. We’re starting to see some communities around some of those as well. So, the reference panel is growing, and the number of testers are growing as well. Here’s what I tell people, and they don’t always like this answer. But if you have Native American DNA, it will show up on an AncestryDNA test.

Lisa: You made such an important point that you could have a Native American ancestor and not have Native American DNA, right?

Crista: Yeah, absolutely. It just depends on how many ancestors have Native American DNA and how far back they were, whether or not you actually inherited those.

How Many Generations Back Can DNA Go?

Lisa: Give people a sense of how many generations back that the DNA becomes minute, in terms of what you might be inheriting from someone.

Crista: I am not a math person, but DNA has changed my world! And it amuses my accountant dad that I can do this now in my head. Everybody inherits exactly 50% of DNA from their parents. Those parents inherited 50% of DNA from each of their parents, but what they pass down to you is going to be about 25% of your grandparents DNA. And then it just gets cut in half every generation back. So, you’re going to have about 12 and a half percent of your great grandparents DNA, and about 6% of your two times great grandparents, and about 3% of your three greats, and about a percent and a half of your four greats! And by the time you get to your fifth great grandparents, it is possible when you consider all the people in that generation, that you did not inherit any DNA from one of them. Because you got all of it from one of the others. So five times great grandparents is the generation where we start to see some of that fall off. But that means that you’re getting it from somewhere, so some of those lines of your family tree will go back to the seventh and eighth, and sometimes even ninth great grandparents.

Which DNA Matches Should I Work On?

Lisa: That makes the case why when it’s focus, focus on best matches right? You were talking about that some people might have 75,000 matches, but we’ve got to start with identifying who the closest were and work on these because they probably have the most potential to give you information, right?

Crista: Not only the most potential to give you information, but also to build a solid foundation, so that you can explore those more distant matches. Because unless you’ve built that solid foundation and validated the relationships all the way back to third or fourth or fifth grade grandparents, the hope of connecting with the eighth or ninth cousin on one of those other lines further back is going to be a lot more difficult and a lot more shaky of a conclusion.

How to Approach a DNA Match

Lisa: You know, when people get a best match, they want to reach out. You were talking about the messaging system is free. It’s part of what you have access to when you test. You’re on the phone, you talk to people, I’ve seen you at the conferences, you know, you’re talking firsthand to your customers and really hearing from them. What kind of coaching do you give people on how to approach somebody, particularly if they get resistance? Is there one more thing they might be able to say just to kind of keep the door open or somehow nudge the match to interact? What do you recommend?

Crista: Okay, so Lisa, I am single, I have never been married. And that might seem like a funny segue into this. But that means I have a whole lot of experiences. And I approach communicating with unknown or unpreviously connected to cousins a little bit like I approach it. You’re not going to spill all of your deepest, darkest secrets on the first date, or you’re going to send them screaming into the night. Or they may just entirely ghost you, right? That’s a new term for people who just ignore you after a date. And that happens. Sometimes people just go on for paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs in that initial message they send a cousin. And my guess is those cousins are seeing some of those messages and just being like, “I don’t even know what to do with this information. It’s overwhelming,” right? So, you have to tone it down.

But by the same token, right, I’m not going to go on a first date, and just sit there and not answer his questions or not try to initiate a conversation. And so again, similarly, when you send out that first message, you’re gonna want to provide enough information that’s something they can respond to. I’ve seen people send messages that say something like, “Hi, we’re DNA matches, do you know how we’re related?” and they give them nothing to nothing to work with. You have to give them just enough that they will want to respond and that they have something to respond to, but not so much that you overwhelmed.

Lisa: And maybe something just a little intriguing. I know that when I’ve talked to people who we are sharing ancestors on my family tree, one of the things I’ll say is, “you know, I have some photos.  I’d love to talk to you about that. Maybe you do too.”

I remember, in the old days, I would send them all my best pictures, and they would take them and they never respond. You don’t want to give away the kitchen sink, right? That’s what you’re saying. I think that’s a good strategy.  And sometimes back then I would get a message from somebody, and they sounded like a scientist, and I felt intimidated, like, “I can’t keep up, I’m gonna say something and I’ll be wrong” and they’ll be able to say, “Oh, my gosh, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” So, there’s also that intimidation factor. I guess even if we do know all that stuff, we don’t want to necessarily wipe people out with it.

Crista: I used to have a thing about intriguing, but intriguing, but not overwhelming. That’s kind of the mic that runs through my head when I craft those messages.

Lisa: I like that. Anything else when it comes to AncestryDNA that we should be keeping our eyes out for? Anything you want to tell us about? What’s coming in the future?

What’s Coming to AncestryDNA in the Future

Crista: There’s a few things. We can kind of divide them into two categories around the ethnicity estimates and the communities. Just to make sure this is clear, we update ethnicities about once a year in the fall. So, watch for that. We usually send out an email or put a banner on the site. But one of the things that we’ve learned is that a lot of people don’t know that. And so, they don’t know to come check and see what’s been updated. So just watch for those announcements or those emails.

Genetic communities can be updated at any time for two reasons.

One reason is, you may all of a sudden just have enough matches, that you’re pulled into an existing network that has been labeled as an existing community. So those communities could just pop up at any time.

The other reason is that about every six or eight weeks or so we’re releasing new communities. Our science team has been working fast and furious to identify new networked clusters and make sure that we’ve got them labeled correctly, and that we’ve worked with history professors and others to understand the cultural and historical implications because we want to be accurate and informative, but also sensitive to all the nuances around race and ethnicity and history. Because history is messy. And as people dive into it, those of us who’ve been doing family history, understand that. But again, a lot of people are new to family history, and DNA is their first foot in the door. And we want to make sure that we’re a little sensitive to how we present some of that information. So always new communities. That’s on the DNA side of the house.

And then we are working on some additional features for the DNA match list. We’ve previewed them with some customer experience groups. We’ve previewed them with influencers like yourself. And so just we can say that those are coming but can’t talk a whole lot about them. We’re listening to our customers and we’re really trying to make sure that that DNA match list experience works for more casual customers just taking their first steps into family history, and those of us who are hardcore into this and trying to break through 40-year brick walls using our DNA results.

How to Contact AncestryDNA

Lisa: Well, and you said, you listen to your customers. What is the best way for somebody to get in touch with you or just share feedback or a question?

Crista: There’s two primary channels for that, though, we listen in a lot of ways.

Ancestry has a Facebook page. If you go to the official Ancestry Facebook page, you can send a direct message to us with your feedback or post it just there on the wall. Our product managers do follow that and keep tracking and put that into our feedback system.

The other way to contact us is to just do a Google search for Ancestry feedback. It’ll bring up a feedback form that’s in our Help Center. It’s a little easier to find it that way.

Lisa: I think I was just talking to my show about sometimes googling for a page is easier. Ancestry’s website is so well organized, it will grab exactly whatever page you’re looking for probably even faster than navigating.

Well, how fun it has been to get a chance to catch up with you on the latest with AncestryDNA. I know we recently followed each other over on Instagram, and over there I see that we share another passion which is gardening. How is your garden going this summer?

I always had aspirations, but with all of the genealogical conferences and the traveling that I do for Ancestry I’ve never been home until this last summer. And so last summer, I tried it. And I failed miserably. I grew one tomato, and a little bit of basil. That was what I did, but I made it again. Yes. This year, I’ve got some zucchini going and some little herb garden and we’re trying tomatoes again. We’ll see how that goes.

Lisa: Good job. Are you planting in the ground? Or are you doing containers?

Crista: Both. So I have a little garden patch in my backyard. But then I also built some standing like garden racks for my herbs and stuff.

Lisa: Very cool. I’ve been in the same boat as you. It’s like after 14 years of constant traveling – which has been great, I’ve missed it – I started all this container gardening. I’m doing the self-wicking tubs. I saw a guy on YouTube doing it, and it looked awesome. We’ll see how it pans out here in the heat of Texas. But anyway, there’s never enough time to do all the wonderful things that we would enjoy doing and certainly genealogy is that way! 

Thank you so much Crista Cowan! If somebody wanted to get in touch with you, where should they go check you out?

Crista: The best place is on Instagram and it’s just my Instagram handle which is just my name Crista Cowan.

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