The word "source" as used on the FamilySearch.org Family Tree is somewhat ambiguous. Here is one definition of the term from the FamilySearch Help Center:
- A primary source is a record created at or near the time of an event by someone with personal knowledge of the event. Examples of primary sources include birth certificates, death certificates, census records, newspapers, letters, journals, tax lists, court documents, or church records. Published books can be primary sources if they contain accounts based on personal knowledge of an event.
- A secondary source is a record created after the time of an event by someone who did not experience the event personally. Most histories are secondary sources.
- Sources can also come from personal knowledge about a person or from interviews with living relatives or other oral sources.
- A citation is a reference that describes the source and how to find it. Citations for oral sources should include who provided the information. Citations are important because they help users know where information came from and how reliable it is. They can also help users find more information.
According to this definition, the "sources" shown in the above image are "citations." The sources would be the record. But it common to use the words "source" and "citation" interchangeably.
Why do we need citations to sources? When I enter information into the Family Tree I may think that it is correct. For example, let's suppose I enter my great-grandfather's birth date as follows:
11 June 1852
San Bernardino, Los Angeles, California, United States
Where did I get that information? Is it correct? I may "know" that it is correct, but how would you know? If I tell you where I got the information, you have a chance to determine for yourself whether it is correct or not. Here is what someone else put into a family tree program for my great-grandfather's birthdate.
San Bernardino, San Bernardino, California, United States
Are these the same? The dates are the same, but the place shows a different county. Was my great-grandfather born in Los Angeles County or San Bernadino County? How could I tell unless someone added a citation to a source showing where they got the information. If I find contradictory information, how can I resolve the differences?
What if we find both entries and don't know which one is correct? What if there are no sources (i.e. citations to records containing information about my great-grandfather's birth)? Then, if I want to know where he was born, I need to do the research myself. So, one function of a source citation is to help us all to avoid duplicating research over and over again.
In the case of the different counties, it turns out that in 1852, the town of San Bernardino was in Los Angeles County and later it was in San Bernardino County. What difference does this make? Well, since the records about an event could be created at the time of the event and since we need to look for records, we have a rule that places are recorded as they were at the time of an event. Who made up that rule? A long line of genealogists over time.
If I do the research and record the information I learn from the research and also cite the source, then someone who comes along can quickly determine which place is correctly designated. Does this sound complicated? It can be.
What if I find another source that gives a different date or place? That is quite common. Then we have to decide which of the sources is the most reliable. It would also help if we added the reason for our choice in the notes part of the source citation.
What if I find two or more sources for the same information? We record every place where the information can be found. We do not care about "duplicate sources" because they take up only a very little informational space and because we might want to know about more than one place where the information could be found.
What if we add something that does not fit the definition of a source? Who cares? Unless the information is inaccurate or misleading, there is no harm done.
What if I know the information, but cannot find a record supporting the information? Again, go ahead and add in the information but the lack of a record means your conclusion will not be given the same weight as a conclusion supported by a cited source. But what if the source is wrong? Then you will have to find other sources that show how the source is not accurate.
Fortunately, FamilySearch provides us with record hints that can be used to support or correct the information found in the family tree.