It's advice every beginner will get over and over again, and for good reason. If there is one mistake nearly every researcher has made, it's failing to cite our sources from day one. Many of us begin our journey having no idea just how far it will lead; genealogy often begins as a school assignment, or a minor hobby. Few of us go into it expecting it to become a life-long project, and so do not feel the need to add a pile of sources to document relatives we know personally or are fairly confident about. Unfortunately, that means that several years and hundreds of names later, many of us are shaking fists at ourselves for having no idea where we found those names and whether or not our information is accurate.
"But it's so expensive!"
Cost is probably the #1 reason many of us don't cite our sources from the get-go. A single subscription to a research site can cost hundreds of dollars - more than anyone who is unsure if they want to commit to such a project is willing to spend. Worse yet, a single subscription often doesn't seem like enough. There are ancestry sites, newspaper sites, graveyard sites, photo sites - all with different information and resources we want access to. Unless one is independently wealthy, the sheer number of costly resources can be enough to put one off.
So, how does one approach starting a family tree, knowing they want to accurately document each and every name without investing hundreds or thousands of dollars on day one?
1. Free websites
Yes, they exist. In fact, one of the best sources of genealogical information is 100% free. FamilySearch offers thousands of census records, birth and death certificates, marriage records, baptismal records, photographs, and obituaries, at no cost whatsoever. Because it is a LDS (Mormon) run site, many assume it is of no use to those who have no Mormons in their family, but this is completely inaccurate. While it does favour European and North American records, it can be a hugely useful resource to anyone researching their ancestry, and allows you to download records at no cost. Other free and helpful sites include FindAGrave, DeadFred, TribalPages, and, yes, even Ancestry.com. While Ancestry.com is technically a paid site, one can create a tree for free, and access any photos or documents other members have made public.
2. Family Interviews
One of the best resources any of us have is our own family. Interviewing older relatives provides us with information no census record can - they can tell us who their relatives actually were - what they did for a living, what they believed, what kind of music they liked and activities they enjoyed. And, they can give us clues on where to look for solid documentation. You may know your great-grandfather was born in England, but his kids can tell you he moved to Spain as a teen, or that he lied about his age and joined the military at 16. We often discount family stories as unreliable, but it is these stories that can give us the best clues on where to search next.
3. Public Libraries
Ah, libraries, the most underrated resource of all. In this digital age, many forget that libraries are a rich source of information on any number of topics, and genealogy is no exception. Large libraries in big cities almost certainly have an ancestral section, and even those that do not definitely have a history, biography, and local section, in which at least some of your clues await. Even small libraries with less physical resources have taken to subscribing to Ancestry.com, allowing you to access records you could not from home. If you were of the belief that libraries are no longer useful, spend a day researching your ancestry there - I assure you, you'll change your mind immediately.
4. Social Media
Hear me out on this one. No, social media cannot provide you with actual documentation. No, there aren't any census records or birth certificates waiting to be discovered there. But a big part of sourcing your information is finding people who can help you confirm or discard what you've been told. Sourcing is much more than just finding legal documents - it's identifying people in photographs, clearing up fuzzy stories, gathering dates of birth and death, making contact with people who know more than you do - and social media is invaluable in this sense. Facebook in particular provides us with the opportunity to simply search for any groups or pages associated with surnames, genealogical groups, cities, or historical events relevant to our personal ancestral journey - within seconds, we can connect with distant relatives or research groups who will help us document and flesh out our information.
Sourcing and citing information is vital to creating an accurate, informative family tree, but it does not have to cost you your annual income or stress you out to the point of throwing in the towel. With a little perseverance, a little effort, and a little luck, anyone can begin creating a well-documented tree for the price of an internet subscription and a good cup of coffee (coffee optional, but definitely recommended).