Friday, April 11, 2014

Should We Put Digital Image URLs in Source Citations?

I wrote Treasure Chest Thursday - Post 209: 1789 Birth Record for Hannah Sawtell in Brookline, N.H. Town Records yesterday, after finding records in a FamilySearch browse collection.  The source citation I provided was:

"New Hampshire Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1636-1947," digital images,  FamilySearch ( accessed 12 November 2012), Hillsborough County, Brookline Town, "Town Records, 1769-1833," Page 526 (stamped and penned, image 266 of 279), Hannah Sartell birth entry, 6 November 1789 (daughter of Josiah and Hannah Sartell); citing New Hampshire Town Clerk Records.

As you can see, it has an URL in it.  If I click on it, it doesn't go to the collections page as I desired.  The URL should have been  That goes to the specific record collection, but not the digital image of the record.  Here is an image of the page for the correct link:

I received a comment on the post from Mark Roy, who said:

"It's interesting, in an unfortunate way, that the URL contained in the citation is not useful to access the image or even the collection.  Rather, it's a link to XML content that contains information about the source. So, you're stuck having to dig through to "re-find" the cited document.

"It would be far more useful, IMO, for the citation to include a 'permalink' URL to a page that contained a link to the cited image."

Thank you to Mark for pointing out that the URL wasn't helpful.  I agree that it wasn't.  And I'll fix the source citations in my database that used it.

Mark raises two more issues:

1)  Why should I put all of the other information (the waypoints -- "Hillsborough County, Brookline Town, "Town Records, 1769-1833," Page 526 (stamped and penned, image 266 of 279), Hannah Sartell birth entry, 6 November 1789 (daughter of Josiah and Hannah Sartell)" information) in the source citation?  The main reason is so that I, or another researcher, can "dig through" FamilySearch to find the document being cited.  That source may be published without the record image being available.  Someone may not be able to access it online, so the source citation waypoints could help someone find the correct Family History Library microfilm.  

The second reason to include the waypoints is "an appeal to authority" -  because Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills recommends doing so.  I try really hard to create EE-quality source citations because I hope to publish my research some day, and want to be a good example on this blog.  If, by some miracle, I published this research in a peer-reviewed book or periodical, that source citation (after I modify it for the correct URL) would need little editing because it meets EE standards for the type of genealogical record.

For the record, I know that Evidence Explained recommends using only the general website URL rather than a specific collection URL.  So a "better" EE-quality source citation would have only in the citation above.

2)  Why not use the full digital image URL?  Yes, that could be done.  For this record, it is:,265865101,265866901

Good luck typing that into your browser successfully.  Someone might copy this article or just a source citation with that URL into a text editor or an email - would it survive several copy/pastes as a useful URL?  Maybe.  It's useless if you can't click it, or if the reader doesn't understand how much of it to copy/paste.  

FamilySearch claims that the URLs for their digital images are "permanent."  I believe that they think it will be.  But I know that URLs change, and in two, ten or fifty years, will that URL still work?  

I will appeal to authority again - on the Evidence Explained Forum, Elizabeth Shown Mills recommends not using a full digital image URL in several of the citation-related threads.

Finally, I know that the source citations that I put in my database and copy to my blog posts are often imperfect.  The source citations in my genealogy program have only the "home" page URL - in this case,  I try, and I appreciate it when readers find errors in, or question why I put something in, a source citation.  I think that we are all trying to do a great job on our source citations.  At worst, my attempts can always be used as a bad example.

The URL for this post is:

Copyright (c) 2014, Randall J. Seaver


Julie Michutka said...

I just had to update some FamilySearch image URLs; they're in course materials and I check them three times a year, before the course runs. The previous URLs were stable for many months, or shall we say they were permanent until they changed. ;-) I've had the waypoints change on me,too, when a collection was expanded.

Geolover said...

Last week or so, many users found that the so-called permalinks (URLs with "pal" in them) were not correctly linking to the places they were supposed to.

After a while the disruptive coding change was again changed, so they now work.

Randy, your comment, "FamilySearch claims that the URLs for their digital images are "permanent." I believe that they think it will be. But I know that URLs change, and in two, ten or fifty years, will that URL still work?" is right on target.

It is easy for some site programmer to make a very disruptive small change.

I still want to give the exact image URL, and do so with image number on imaged microfilm number and access date. With all this information it should be possible for a subsequent seeker to locate the image. The default FamilySearch citations are nowhere near as useful for the future.

Cousin Russ said...


For Citations, with wanting to be as close to Evidence Explained as possible, I do not include URLs in my Reference Note (Citations). I do have a check mark option to do so AND I have them in my database on the Citation Screen.

Why then, don't I include them in my citation?

3 reasons, for me.

I look at what the output looks like

IF I print a chart or report that includes a Citation, can it be clicked on and taken to the source repeatedly, if at all

Is it useful in my online family tree

For me, after looking at my questions, the answer is that I don't need to include the full URL. Websites (thus URLs) change over time making it useless. When it's in something that has been put on paper, you can't click on it and the URL, for me, is too difficult to try to enter in a browser address bar, and IF the tree is online, that link still may or may not work.

At least in my online tree, any image backing up the Citation, would be there, so it's really now helpful, but I an get to that image following the bread crumbs in the Citation.

I have gone back a couple of times to review the 1st 2 chapters of Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace; by Elizabeth Shown Mills; 2007 Genealogical Publishing Company; Baltimore, Maryland; p. 59, para. 2.37; which is the hint, or OK in my book, reasoning for not including the dynamic URL in the Citation.

IF I have written the Citation correctly, going to the host website, the other details in the Citation will take the reader to what I am looking at when I record the data. Not only that, back to the original record that I am looking for. I thank that piece is more important then the detailed or complete URL to the specific image.

As I said, I do have that link, available to me, in my database, IF and when I need it.

T said...

I've found too often a url doesn't go to the document I am citing so now I save an image and in the properties box list every darn thing I can think of to help me find this same image again. I also include the url - Just In Case it still works. After familysearch started their partnerships I've not been able to view some of the documents without paying at the partner site. So now I save EVERYTHING to my computer and put the citation right with the image. If for some reason the url doesn't go there any more I still have the image (even if I have to say it was the 1850 census once found on familysearch or Better to have the image without citation than no image at all.

Mark Roy said...

Sorry -- I thought the citation came directly from Family Search, otherwise I would have been more diplomatic.

Ironically, I just checked the citations that FS generates and they do indeed include the permalink URL in addition to the textual description.

If you make the argument that the image permalink URLs won't hold up over time, then why include any URL at all?

Unknown said...

Regarding the problem of correctly copying the full digital image URL, what about using TinyURL (or similar) or is that frowned upon for citations?

Randy Seaver said...


There is no guarantee that TinyURLs or Bit.Ly URLs are or will be permanent. They are certainly something to consider in blogp osts and thel ike, but perhaps not for "all time."

I've made TinyURLs in the past and had them not work later.

Thanks for the comment!