I found some records using ancestry.com that I want to be able to cite in an article.

The provenance of the information is something like (1) handwritten parish records, photographed for the (2) FHC microfilm, transcribed for the (3) ancestry.com database. Ideally I could cite the original primary source but those records are out of reach. I could cite the microfilm if I went to the trouble of borrowing and reading through it, but the website data may actually be enough for my needs. The site describes the material as originating in the microfilm and does not even always specify a page number. I didn't see any unique ID number for each record, but it's possible that I just missed it (I only have access to the database from the library).

What are the best practices for writing these citations?

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    Peripherally relevant: have you checked on FamilySearch.org to see if the microfilm in question has been digitized and made available online? A lot of them have been, in the past year or two. (Start at familysearch.org/search, go to Catalog, choose "Search for: Film/Fiche Number", and put in the "FHC microfilm" number from the Ancestry database. Click a search result to expand it, then click on a name/title to go to the catalog page. Scroll down to the Film/Digital Notes section and look for the camera icon at the right.)
    – JPmiaou
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 4:43
  • Oh, and one more thing: you can no longer borrow microfilm at FHCs. The materials got too expensive, so FamilySearch discontinued microfilm lending, and is working on digitizing everything instead. (Access rights can be a muddle, though.)
    – JPmiaou
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 4:48
  • @JPmiaou thank you for this tip. I thought the lack of a digital image in the index result meant the film wasn't online, but it was! Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 22:44
  • @JPmiaou Could you write up the information in your comments in an answer? We're supposed to be using the comments to ask for improvements to the question, not answering the questions here. Thanks!
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 4:42
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    @JanMurphy, my comment has nothing to do with how to write a citation for an Ancestry source, so it's not an answer to the question.
    – JPmiaou
    Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 15:47

1 Answer 1


Without seeing the specific case I can only give a general answer. If I'm understanding your description, you are looking at an Ancestry index-only database such as the England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975. Let's use that as an example.

Why do we write citations?

People commonly say that we need to cite our work so that we can find it again, or that someone else can use the citation to evaluate our work if there's a question or if we've made a mistake. Those things are true, but people overlook what I think is the most important consideration. Elizabeth Shown Mills says:

EE 2nd ed page 10

This screenshot was taken from page 10 of the 2nd edition of Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence Explained. In the current edition (3rd ed revised) it is on page 8.

If I wanted to post a "fastest gun in the west" answer, I could recommend that you get a copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills' Quicksheet for citing Ancestry databases (see link to newest edition in the reading list). I could also refer you to the discussions in the forum on the Evidence Explained website like this one from 2016: Ancestry citations where the problems of citing something from Ancestry are discussed.

But that doesn't address the core issue here, in that you are wanting to cite an index without evaluating what you're looking at.

The principle is to cite what you actually use. This discussion may be the most similar to your case: Multiple sources and records. The person asking is quoting indexes from several different websites. Elizabeth Shown Mills answered:

The bottom line is to cite what you use. In your discussion above, you mention "indexes" but do not indicate whether you saw the certificates you are citing. Does this FamilySearch or Ancestry database provide image copies of those certificates, whereby you might confirm the accuracy of the dates and glean other data? If you are using an online derivative such as a database or index, rather than viewing an image of the original, then your citation has to make that clear. The typical way to do that is to cite what we actually use, then add that our derivative source cites thus-and-such.

She goes on to advise her reader to consult section 2.11 of EE. She kindly points out that if we don't have EE or the Ancestry Quicksheet, that section of EE is available to read on the EE website under the "Sample Text Pages" tab. Section 2.12 is also part of that preview, and talks about the problems of citing a finding aid rather than consulting the original records.

You say that "the website data may actually be enough for my needs" but when you simply accept an extract at face value, you don't know the quality of the information. At the very least, I would suggest that you take the FHL film numbers provided by Ancestry and go to the FamilySearch catalog to read the catalog entry and the Film Notes for that film to get a better understanding of where the information came from.

It's important to remember, too, that sometimes the digital images and the indexes can be on different FHL microfilm rolls. Read the Film Notes and catalog information carefully. Learn how to do place searches, and check all possible jurisdictions.

Even if you can't view the image (perhaps because it is available only at a FHC or at the FHL), you can use that information in turn to learn more about the original that was indexed.

You can also look for alternative means of access. For example -- if the data came from a set of Bishop's Transcripts rather than a parish register, again assuming we're talking about England, are the parish registers available elsewhere? Has anyone published an independent transcription of the registers, either in book form (search in WorldCat, on the Internet Archive, etc.), on CD, or online? Is the parish included on FreeReg? Have you checked DustyDocs or UKBMD? Have you read the relevant article for the parish in the FamilySearch Research Wiki or on GENUKI?

Our goal should be to get to the original records, or as close to it as we can. If we rely on indexes only, we can't tell if the indexer has crammed a baptism date into a birth date field, or a burial date into a death date field.

It's especially concerning to me that you say you want to know how to cite this for an article. I agree with Elizabeth Shown Mills that you need to make it absolutely clear to your reader what you have looked at.

Further reading:

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    Thank you. I see what you mean. The link to EE was helpful and caused me to rethink depending on someone else's reading of the record. Then, JPmiaou's tip to look for the film on familysearch.org paid off and I was able to find the original records from home. Problem solved! Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 22:52
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    @AaronBrick Good work! I've added a little bit to the answer for other readers who may be referring to it later on.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 4:50

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