Peeling Back the Layers: Online Source Citations Part 1

Have you wondered how to create a source citation for a record found on a website like FamilySearch or Ancestry? With the majority of our research now done online, understanding the basics of citation can help us accurately cite our sources and create a path back to the original source. In this three-part series we’ll look at different examples that illustrate the principles needed to construct a citation for a source from any website. First up, an example from Ancestry.

Citation Elements

Genealogy Standards defines five elements any source citation should include. (1)

Who: the creator of the source

What: the title or description of the source

When:  the date of creation or when the source was accessed

Where: the physical location of the source

Wherein: the location within the source of specific item

These sound simple enough, but when confronted with an image on a website, you may be challenged in trying to decide what information to include to create a complete and clear citation. The answer comes in thoroughly understanding the source and the concept of layered citations.

Layered Citations

When using online materials, we are often viewing an image of an original document such as a marriage record or a death certificate. These materials are usually part of a larger collection created by a government or church body. Do we cite the original collection, the title assigned by the website, or both?

Elizabeth Shown Mills in Evidence Explained has given us excellent guidance in terming these complicated citations as “layered.” (2) We cite the physical information, then we cite the digital information, separating both parts with a semi-colon. Depending on the website and the source, you might choose to list the digital information first, and then the physical. An additional layer could be the Family History Library microfilm number.

Mills also uses the term “Velcro principle” to explain that the physical and digital parts of the citation stay together. Mixing the physical with the digital information can be confusing and you want to be completely clear.

Let’s look at an example from Ancestry to see how a layered citation can be created easily and quickly.

ncestry Citations

The World War I Draft Registration Cards are an excellent example of a collection hosted on Ancestry with several moving pieces. Viewing the source information provided for Dock Harris’ record in the screenshot below, I see several citation elements: a suggested source citation, source information, and description. How can I easily put these together into a clear, informative layered citation? The source citation provided does not include some important elements such as the name of Dock Harris, where I viewed the image, and the original data. It is a good starting point, but I need to create a better citation with each of the elements covered.

Source Information Provided by

Viewing the actual image of the draft registration card shown in the screenshot below, you can see good information listed in the header at the top of the page. The title of the collection as well as specifics are listed such as state, county, and the name of Dock Harris.

Image of Dock Harris’ World War I Draft Registration Card

I’ve developed a quick and easy method for these type of sources. I copy the information directly above the image and add appropriate punctuation.  I put quotes around the collection title because Ancestry is a publication, comparable to a book, and this collection is like a chapter in a book.

After the title of the main collection, I move the name of the individual to the end of the digital information. This orders the citation from the broad collection to the specific individual.

The website information is next. Because a website is a publication like a book with many chapters, it is italicized and the publication data enclosed in parentheses. The URL can be the short form of the website because this is an indexed entry and with the specific details should be easy for anyone to find. Another website might need the complete URL listed.

Following the digital information, a semi-colon signals another layer of the citation. I use the term “citing” to clearly note that this record is held by the National Archives. I’ve made the decision to keep this section succinct in this example because the National Archives and this collection is widely known. If it were more obscure, additional identifying information could be included.

The complete citation has the complete digital layer first, then the shortened physical layer. I chose not to repeat the identifying information for the physical layer. If I visited the National Archives, this would be enough information to locate the original.

“U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” Oklahoma >  Love County > Draft Card H, entry for Dock Harris, 1917, database with images, Ancestry ( : accessed 26 May 2020); citing National Archives microfilm publication M1509.

Elements in the Citation

How does this citation answer the questions of who, what, when, where, and wherein? Here is how the pieces of the citation answer each question:

Who created the source?

Digital layer – Ancestry

Physical layer – National Archives

What is the source?

Digital layer – U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, entry for Dock Harris

Physical layer – none, didn’t duplicate the digital information

When is the source?

Digital layer – 1917 [date of record], accessed 26 May 2020

Physical layer – none, didn’t duplicate the digital information

Where is the source?

Digital layer –

Physical layer – National Archives

Wherein is the source?

Digital layer – Oklahoma >  Love County > Draft Card H

Physical layer – microfilm publication M1509

Because I follow Elizabeth Shown Mill’s premise that “Citation is an art, not a science,” (3) this method of creating a source citation from Ancestry serves me well. When creating your own citations, examining the source, then creating a citation that includes the elements will help you craft clear, concise citations.

Thinking of the layers can help you decide how to order those elements. Remember to keep all the physical information together and all the digital information together.

Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!



(1) Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 2nd. Ed. (Nashville, Tennessee: Turner Publishing Co., 2019), 8.

(2) Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained 3rd ed. (Baltimore, Maryland : Genealogical Publishing Co., 2015), 58.

(3) Ibid, 41.

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