Here’s a great way to remember how to write good quality source citations without stress.

If you want just get the information down without the formality of a proper source citation, think of the Five “W’s” of journalism… Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.  But I’ve got my own take on this, to help remember everything easily. I call it the Six W’s and How… Genealogy Source Citations Will Work for You!  It’s a play on words, get it?

Six W’s and How Genealogy Source Citations Will Work for You!

Ready? Here it is…  Who, What , Where, When and When, Why and How.  That’s right, two When’s!  Say that ten times and you’ll have it.  Who, What , Where, When and When, Why and How.  It’s a tongue twister, but you’ll remember it. Learn this technique and you’ll have the details of the source citations professionals use.

  • Who – (Who created this item, statement, book, document, photo, etc.? It might be a probate court, the state or federal government, a testimonial by a person, county recorder’s office, or an author of a book. Who created it?
  • What – (What is it? Description or title, in detail, of the document, object, photo, testimonial, and publisher information! )
  • Where – (Where did you find it? Archive, library, person’s full name, etc.) Be very specific so that a stranger can retrace your steps. This is a physical address, email, online repository with address. It could be all of the following…  place, room, shelf, book, chapter, page, paragraph and line… if that’s what it takes for an stranger to find it again.

A note about web addresses:  Use them, BUT ALSO give all information about it’s location again in written form, so that one can find it without a web address. This might be an online archive, with record group, section, image number, line number and persons name in the document or all of the above.  Over time, websites die or change and if you have a web address, it will be useless a few years from now.  We’ll talk more about that in other lessons.

  • When and When – (When this item was created? and When you located it?)  Make sense?  Two When’s!
  • Why – (Why does this matter, as it relates to your target question or ancestor?) Perhaps this evidence is the item that ties two brothers together, or proves someone bought some land, or directly or indirectly answers the question you’ve been researching.
  • How – (How can you access this again if needed? Is it online, only available at the archives, in grandma’s possession?)  You might have covered this in the “Where” question above, but give it some thought.  You may have found it in grandma’s attic, but brought it home and filed it in your own archives.  You’ll need to document both, where you found it and how can you find it again? Especially, if it’s location has changed.

You’ll need to do this exercise for everything you find. If you do, you’re well on your way to writing real proper “Elizabeth Shown Mills style” source citations like she teaches in her book Evidence Explained and on her website  She and her methods are the gold standard of genealogical source citations.  These Six W’s and How… are an early stepping stone to understanding her artful source citation methods.
In the interest of full disclosure, this link for Mills book is an affiliate marketing link that helps support this website. However, using this link will not cost you anymore.  I will never-ever recommend a book I don’t believe in.  Please know that your trust in me is worth more than a small commission.  However, should you use this link, you’ll help support my efforts to bring quality genealogy education to you and others.  Thanks for your support.
At the end of the day, can anyone find your source again?  If so, kudos!  You’ve got this! I’m curious, please answer the poll below.
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