Monday, October 3, 2011

Monday Mailbox: URL Citation Principles

I received the following in response to my article, “It’s Not My Fault! URL Citation Principles.”

Dear Ancestry Insider,

OK - some of us are OLD ladies, who have been grinding microfilm readers since before some of you geeks or nerds [whatever] were born.  What will those numbers tell us?  Yes, indeed, I have been missing some of *sources* of my printouts for quite a time now.  I have had to school myself to grab a pencil real fast.  I found a suspect English born great-aunt's christening in the right county in England, but being familiar with the IGI (even though it is generally a poor source) I deduce the source is the IGI.  Give us old ladies (and a few elderly gentlemen) some clues as to what we do with the numbers.  Is this in Mrs. Mills' book on Evidence (items from the internet)?


Dear Evelyn,

You said “What will those numbers tell us?”  I guess turnabout is fair play because you’ve lost me. I don’t know what you are asking.

I hope your question is not about the section titled “Don’t Try This at Home” I make the statement “If you aren’t technically savvy, skip now to the conclusion.” This is not a question of intelligence or ability to learn. This is a practical matter of prerequisite knowledge.

Perhaps you are wondering what the “right” citations would look like, or maybe even what the “wrong” citations might look like. But don’t miss the point. The article was not about Mills Standard. Yes, Mills’s book, Evidence Explained, can alert you to issues you might not have thought about. Yes, you can probably write shorter citations after reading her book. But what the article talked about was principles you use whether you use Mills of make up your own. The point is that if you want to get back to the source latter, you need more than a URL.

Bad URL, Bad Citation:

Good URL, but still a bad Citation:

Assuming the URL will break (which it will), what information will you need to get back to the record? Here’s a citation that works. I’ve not compared it to Mills, so I wouldn’t publish it in an article or a book. But, hey, it gets you back to the original even if the URL breaks:

The source was an image I found on 30 September 2011 at, United States Census, 1870 > New York > New York > New York City, ward 01. Image 396 of 792 was page 2 of the 1st enumeration.

This citation doesn’t fit any particular standard, but it will get you back to the online source even if the website changes somewhat and it indicates the source was digital images.

Does that help? If I still haven’t answered your question, post a comment to this article.

-- The Insider


  1. I agree that the "can I get back to the data in the resource" is the key to a good citation. I also think that Mills can be overkill for most folks (even those of us who teach proper citation format for more general writing). The URL of the source itself is useful, but (as your prose citation notes) specific details on the exact image are more usefully reported directly rather than within the search string. I'm a Reunion user (Mac) and I have my detailed source records set up in a "fill in the blank style" so that I can enumerate the values of the various fields:

    1850 US census, Chesterfield, Chesterfield county, SC, Page 103, NARA Roll M432_851, Source, File # SC-0007, WLJ Reid household. Family #60, Lines 11-20.

    Here the File# refers to my own filing system for soft and hard copy of images. I include the date accessed for items that are likely to change (such as personal websites).

  2. A few years back, using the IGI and the batch number while at a FHC we could trace the batch number back to the original. Those of us who worked as librarians were taught how to do that. I think that is what she is asking.

    How do you trace batch numbers back to the original source?
    Can you do the tracing of batch numbers online at

  3. It's very interesting that I, a Reunion user (Mac), have independently come up with the same solution as mccainkw. The only thing I have in addition to what he/she has is the date the census was taken.This system of citation does work for later retrieval.

  4. A batch number search can be done at by clicking on "Advanced Search".

  5. I would always add the URL to the citation, just because it might not have broken.

  6. Your citation articles have made a tremendous difference in the way I write citations. Thank you. I use URLs in the link but name the site. One good example is Find-A-Grave:
    "Find-A-Grave: Chapel Cemetery, Sandstone, Jackson Co. MI" The link is buried in Find-A-Grave.

    But one format that I haven't changed and don't use URLS for is the census. Here are some samples of what I do.
    U.S. Census, 1900, Household of Clarence Hazen, 214 Railroad Ave., Moline, Rock Island Co. IL, ED 95 Sh5 L86, dw74, fam98 (Thomas H. York, lodger).

    U.S. Census, 1900, Household of Mathias Markle, Springdale Township, Cedar Co. IA, ED 35 Sh9 L65, dw205, fam216.

    Most of my census work was done offline from microfilms. I am now creating an Ancestry tree and linking them up so I don't have to hunt for them again. Given the indexing problems it is not unusual for me to use the detail I have kept in order to find the record again. And it works.

    I have a little more trouble with the English censuses because I don't know what some of the numbers mean. Here's a sample

    England Census, 1851, Household of Thomas Hall, Braunston Gate, Leicester St Mary, Leicester District, Leicestershire, RG HO107, piece 2090, folio 760, ED9s, p.11, #45.

    I don't see any value in including the date I found it. (I've been collecting census records for at least 20 years.) The exception would be when my source is correspondence. Then I do include the date.

  7. Dear Nettie,

    It is not a good idea to use a batch number, or any other reference number, instead of a regular citation.

    In the current case, we've seen that using a single URL is not a good idea.

    The same is true for film numbers. I have a family group sheet with a film number that appears to be wrong. I went for months before someone taught me that the FHL had changed the film numbers back sometime. It was months more before I found someone who knew how to translate old film numbers to new.

    The same thing is happening now with new film numbers, as film is replaced with digital.

    The same thing happened when libraries switched from Dewey Decimal to Library of Congress call numbers.

    The same thing happened with PRF citations that specified just a PID.

    Using a batch number solely as a citation was a bad idea. The latest originally didn't support batch number search. But they've added it for extracted batches so you've been given a reprieve. Now is the time to fix those citations.

    --The Insider

  8. Re "I have a little more trouble with the English censuses because I don't know what some of the numbers mean. Here's a sample

    "England Census, 1851, Household of Thomas Hall, Braunston Gate, Leicester St Mary, Leicester District, Leicestershire, RG HO107, piece 2090, folio 760, ED9s, p.11, #45."

    1. Traditional practice in English and Welsh genealogy (but not Scots) is to use the referencing system from our National Archives because they stored the census pages for England & Wales (but not Scotland).

    2. The TNA referencing system consists (usually) of Class, Piece and Folio. Class is the highest level, Piece is generally what you order (so is a big box in the case of censuses) and Folio is the number stamped on each sheet of paper (once on the front of each sheet) in the Piece, starting at 1 and never repeating in the Piece (errors and omissions excepted!). By quoting the Class, Piece and Folio you get to a pair of images, one for each side of the sheet.

    3. In your case, there's no folio number (they're in the top r/h corner), but if you go to the previous image you see 760 stamped there. Strictly speaking the TNA reference of your image would be
    Class: HO107; Piece: 2090; Folio: 760 (reverse)

    The previous image would be the same except for saying Folio 760 (front). However, most people simply say
    Class: HO107; Piece: 2090; Folio: 760; Page: 10
    Class: HO107; Piece: 2090; Folio: 760; Page: 11
    for the 2 sides of the sheet of paper.

    4. The (enumeration) district was used by the census takers and as it's meaningful only to them, we consider that it can be omitted.

    5. The schedule number is the number within the census, not the number on the street used for the postal address.

    6. It's perfectly sensible to add the address to the citation to describe where it is. This can be obtained by combining the name of the street with the details in the top boxes of the image. However, the content of these boxes vary. Normally street name plus either town or village should suffice but in the case of a major town or city like Leicester, other items like the parish help.

    My version of the address here would be
    Braunston Gate, Parish of St Mary, Leicester, Leicestershire

    7. Put it all together and my citation (keeping your ordering) would be something like
    England Census, 1851, Household of Thomas Hall, Braunston Gate, Parish of St Mary, Leicester, Leicestershire; Digital image of original from 1851 England Census [database on-line]; TNA Reference of original Class HO107, Piece 2090, Folio 760, Page 11

    8. Note the letters for the class are HO for the 1841 and 1851 censuses and RG for 1861 onwards. Never RG HO.

    Hope this helps a bit
    Adrian B


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