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In the 2007 version of Evidence Explained (I can't speak to the other editions), the section 7.24, Church Record Certificates, discusses the particulars of citing certificates for events such as baptisms and marriage.

Mills mentions the likelihood of such certificates having been issued well after the event occurred. She then goes on to say, "In other cases, a family has passed down a certificate given by the minister at the time the event occurred. In that case, the certificate would be cited as a family artifact."

This was surprising to me, and prompted a number of followup questions:

  • What is the benefit of using the format for an (in my usage case, privately-held) artifact over the church record certificate format?
  • Does this only apply to a timespan as specific as implied in the quote, or would an item mailed to the family shortly thereafter be cited in the same manner?
  • Would this be a good instance to apply layered citations? (I admit I haven't looked into learning about them yet.)
  • Why is the same not applied to state-issued certificates received around the time of the event (e.g., a birth certificate mailed to the parents)?

I am a beginning genealogist who's trying to learn how to do things right.

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  • @PolyGeo, Hi, I was just wondering what the reason for your edit is? I was trying to emphasize that, while I do want a specific answer, I'm also especially interested in the underlying reasoning, so that I can learn how to apply those ideas to other cases and make my own judgment calls. – Melite Jan 30 '18 at 2:07
  • As it stands I think your question is already too broad since it asks four questions. The sentence that I edited out then broadens each of those questions by saying that you do not want just a specific answer to each but also the background reasoning to that for each. As much as possible, each question here should contain a single focused question that seeks a specific answer. – PolyGeo Jan 30 '18 at 2:43
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What is the benefit of using the format for an (in my usage case, privately-held) artifact over the church record certificate format?

A good citation tells the reader how to find the relevant source. If it's stored in a box in your attic, the reader needs to know that if they are trying to find that document.

Be aware that contemporary copies can differ. I have a certificate of one of my ancestors, passed down to recent generations. This copy is correct, but the copy stored by the church has the wrong father's name listed. Same document, different copies, different information – therefore have to be treaed as different sources.

Does this only apply to a timespan as specific as implied in the quote, or would an item mailed to the family shortly thereafter be cited in the same manner?

The timespan does not matter. Just make it clear where the source was accessed (i.e. list the relevant archive, state that it is in personal posession, etc.)

Would this be a good instance to apply layered citations? (I admit I haven't looked into learning about them yet.)

Layered citations is a fancy way of saying there may be multiple ways of accessing the same source, and you should specify the route of access (media) as well as repository. It is not really a special form of citation. For example, you used Ancestry.com to access a specific census record archived at the National Archives. As long as you include these components, you have a complete citation.

Why is the same not applied to state-issued certificates received around the time of the event (e.g., a birth certificate mailed to the parents)?

It should be. Again, the time the document was received does not matter. The date the document was created does matter (an original 1838 birth certificate should be distinguished from a 1944 copy obtained by your grandfather).


In summary:

  • Do not get too caught up on the minutiae of citations, just make sure you include the pertinent information. There is no one right way to write a citation, as long as you have included the needed information.
  • Be consistent in citation format and content.
  • The primary reason to distinguish in a citation between a newly issued certificate versus a old family certificate (artefact) is in case someone wanted to access the exact same copy that you did.
  • If someone can track down the document using the information in your citation, you have done a good job of writing the citation.
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    "If someone can track down the document using the information in your citation" you have only done part of the job. ESM says that while it is important to cite sources to prove our conclusions and to help others locate the sources, both of those purposes miss the point. Per EE 2012 edition, page 10, the 'most crucial point' is this: "We identify our sources -- and their strengths and weaknesses -- so we can reach the most reliable conclusions." – Jan Murphy Jan 30 '18 at 7:57
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    Jan – I think this is just a question of semantics, and perhaps I err on the side of hyperbole. But the citation is not the same thing as the source, and a citation itself is not a proof. By 'job' I was referring to writing a good citation, but of course you can have all the beautifully written citations in the world and still have drawn the wrong conclusions. Edited to make this clearer. – Harry V. Jan 30 '18 at 15:14
  • "The only real reason to distinguish between a newly issued certificate versus a old family certificate (artefact) is in case someone wanted to access the exact same copy that you did." I disagree. The newly-issued certificate is a copy and wasn't created close to the event. Sometimes it does matter. – Jan Murphy Jan 30 '18 at 19:14
  • @Harry Vervet Ah, so if there's something that either distinguishes the content of my copy or the quality of it as a source from a copy that another person could seek out at the suitable place, I would probably want to use an artifact citation, correct? This was very helpful, thank you. – Melite Jan 31 '18 at 2:33
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    @Jan Yes, the implication is that the copies of the same document made at different times may differ, as in my example given in part one of the question. Therefore the real reason is to distinguish the two copies. I think my sentences in context make sense but if you think they can be made clearer feel free to edit. – Harry V. Jan 31 '18 at 3:48

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