Mar 012011

Source Templates is a feature that some genealogy software programs now offer. When you create a citation to reference a source in your genealogy research, the source templates tool prompts you for the necessary information.  You simply fill in the blanks, and it constructs the actual source citation.  Citations are then complete, and in standard format.

But should you use Source Templates?  I say No! The reason?  Most if not all genealogy programs have yet to get their source templates feature working properly.  Besides minor problems with formatting and punctuation, the most serious issue is:  You will not be able to use your source citations outside of your genealogy program.

I use one program as my main genealogy program.  With it, I maintain my “master” family tree by adding, editing and deleting genealogical facts and information as I discover it.  However I’ve yet to find one program that does everything I want.  One program will print a report another program does not have.  One will print a graphical family tree in a much better format than another.  Another will create a better family tree website.

There are several reasons you will want to transfer your family tree data between different programs.  Even if you do not agree now, there will probably come a time when you do.  Unfortunately if you were to use source templates, other programs will not be able to process your source citations.

When RootsMagic 4 was first released, I bought into the notion of source templates.  I spent a lot of time converting my free-form source citations using its source template facility.  I quickly found many of my citations were incomplete and lacking critical information.  Source templates are a wonderful way of filling in the blanks to construct complete, standardized citations.

I use my own program, GED-GEN, to publish my family tree website.  When I exported a GEDCOM file from earlier releases of RootsMagic 4, I discovered its output included source template information.  This resulted in unreadable source citations on my web pages.

So I modified GED-GEN to handle the proprietary way in which RootsMagic exported source citations.  It worked wonderfully.  But then in subsequent releases of RootsMagic 4, some of the source template information was removed from its GEDCOM file.  Since that time, GED-GEN or any other program for that matter, cannot process the source citations exported in a RootsMagic GEDCOM file.

Why were those template fields removed?  If source citations were exported using its template format, then only RootsMagic, or another program that understood that format, could process and understand the citations.  To “correct” this, later releases simply removed critical parts of the template format.  Now, even if another program understands that proprietary format, it cannot reconstruct the source citations.  What’s more, removing those template fields did not solve the problem.  Source citations cannot be reconstructed in either case.

What is the Problem?

It turns out RootsMagic has a fundamental flaw.  Its source citations are based on source templates.  It exports source templates to a GEDCOM file rather than source citations.  Remember source templates should only be used as a tool to generate proper source citations.  The source templates themselves should not be exported without the accompanied source citations.  RootsMagic doesn’t export source citations at all.

To understand the subtlety of this distinction, let’s look at this issue in more detail.  Here I use RootsMagic 4 as an example.  From what I read, Family Tree Maker 2011 and Legacy Family Tree 7 may have similar issues.  See for example Genea-Musings, The Seaver Source Citation Saga Compendium (February 16, 2011).

GEDCOM Source Records

Traditionally, each source record in a GEDCOM file refers to a single source, and it has a specific title that does not change. Citations (footnotes) that refer to this source all use the same source title. Thus many citations can reference one source. For example, a newspaper is cited by title and issue date:

Daily News. Washington, DC., 25 January 1977.

Introducing Templates

With source templates, the source title may contain place-holders, or fields that can be replaced by different information from different source citations (footnotes). Thus many citations can reference many variations of a single source record. The source record can now stand for many different source titles, not just one title.

For example, rather than a newspaper issue date, a variable date field is specified in a source template:

Daily News. Washington, DC., [Date].

Then, some citations (footnotes) might refer to the 25 January 1977 issue, while others might refer to the 15 March 1995 issue. These use the same source record, but result in different dates, and thus different sources:

Daily News. Washington, DC., 25 January 1977.
Daily News. Washington, DC., 15 March 1995.

A RootsMagic GEDCOM File

In earlier releases of RootsMagic 4, a source record appeared as follows in a GEDCOM file:

0 @S3992@ SOUR
1 ABBR Newspaper, Daily News, Washington, DC
1 TITL [ItemID], <i>Daily News</i>, Washington, DC,
2 CONC [Date], [Details]. [Annotation].

Notice the template fields like [ItemID], [Date], and [Details].  A citation (i. e., footnote) that refers to the above source record might appear as follows. Here the [Date] field in the template above will be replaced by 25 January 1977, which is taken from the citation (footnote) here:

2 SOUR @S3992@
3 REFN 000651
3 PAGE John Doe; 25 January 1977; Page 2, Column 2
5 VALUE John Doe
5 NAME Date
5 VALUE 25 January 1977
5 NAME Details
5 VALUE Page 2, Column 2
5 NAME Annotation

However, later releases of RootsMagic 4 removed the source template fields from the title (TITL) in the source record, so that now, the source record appears as:

0 @S3992@ SOUR
1 ABBR Newspaper, Daily News, Washington, DC
1 TITL , <I>Daily News</i>, Washington, DC, .

Notice here the empty punctuation in the title (TITL).  The [ItemID] and [Date] fields are missing, but the commas and spaces are still there.  Now there is no way to know where to substitute the date when trying to reconstruct the source title.  This is not a source record.  It is the remnant of a source template.

To correct this flaw, there would have to be multiple source records, one for each source citation that references a different source. That is, a source record that is missing the [Date] field:

Daily News. Washington, DC., [Date].

must really be exported as two different source records.  This is because, in our example, there are two source citations (footnotes) that reference the same source template, and this creates two different source titles:

Daily News. Washington, DC., 25 January 1977.
Daily News. Washington, DC., 15 March 1995.

This requires two different source records to be exported in the GEDCOM file.

(A related problem is the inability to generate a bibliography, without also processing all source citations (footnotes) that reference a given source record.  Traditionally, a genealogy program could simply read the list of source records in a GEDCOM file to build a list of sources for a bibliography.  Since the source records are templates here, the actual information can only be found in the source citations (footnotes).  But again, there’s no way to reconstruct a proper source title because the template fields are missing.)

What’s the Solution?

Problem?  What problem?  There is no problem if you continue to use RootsMagic, and only RootsMagic, for your genealogy research.  The problem occurs when you want to use your family tree data in other programs, or share it with someone who does not use RootsMagic.

One could argue that RootsMagic can read its own GEDCOM file and reconstruct the source citations just fine.  That is true, but only because it uses information it knows internally.  It uses a template identifier to look up the format of the template in another file.  Otherwise, without the template fields in the GEDCOM file, RootsMagic cannot reconstruct its own source citations.  And, hopefully, the format of a template referenced by that internal identifier will never change.  Otherwise a newer version of RootsMagic that reads an older GEDCOM file will misinterpret the older format.

In one solution, RootsMagic could correct its earlier “correction” by restoring the missing template fields.  That solves the problem for other programs, but only if those programs understand the RootsMagic source template format.  RootsMagic would still export source templates, and not source citations.  I doubt many other programs would make provision for the RootsMagic format.  And, it doesn’t solve the problem for older programs that understand only the standard GEDCOM source record format.

Secondly, regardless of whether RootsMagic corrects the flaw in exporting its own source templates, it still does not export source citations in either case.  Clearly that is more important because without properly formed source citations, your source data is useless to other programs.  The solution here is to export multiple source records, one for each citation (footnote) that would “cause” a different title.  As it is now, it simply exports the remnant of a single source template.

A third solution, at the risk of being overly esoteric, is to restructure the source templates themselves.  Remove any template fields from the source titles that would be populated with information from a source citation (footnote).  This is the information that changes based on the citation (e.g., the date), and which causes the title to change.  In RootsMagic parlance, the title would be composed only of “master” source template fields.  Source “detail” template fields would appear in the footnote. That perhaps was the genesis of this design flaw.  The fields in source templates were not divided properly as to which should be in the source record and which should be in the source citation (footnote).

Unfortunately, source templates are not so easily modified.  Existing users would have to make extensive changes to their source citations within RootsMagic.  Where there is but a single source, it must now be rewritten into possibly multiple sources, which in the GEDCOM, would result in:

0 @S3992@ SOUR
1 ABBR Newspaper, Daily News, Washington, DC, 25 January 1977
0 @S3993@ SOUR
1 ABBR Newspaper, Daily News, Washington, DC, 15 March 1995

What’s my advice?

It’s been nearly a year since this problem was reported to RootsMagic.  There have been many releases since then, but as of version, none address this issue.  Clearly there are not enough people yet who want to freely move their genealogical data between programs.

I chose to use RootsMagic source templates, and my data is stuck.  I cannot use any other program without sacrificing all the effort I made in converting my free-form source citations to source templates.  I suspect you will encounter the same problem with other genealogy programs that offer source templates.

Do not use the source templates feature of your genealogy program unless you are sure you can export your family tree data and import it to other programs.  In the meantime stick with free-form (non-template) source citations, but use a separate program or website to generate your source citations.  Then copy and paste the result into your free-form source citation.

Unfortunately, your genealogy program may still not store the citation with its constituent parts, that is with separate fields for title, author and publisher. You may lose the benefit of standardized source records when exporting a GEDCOM file. But, your source citations will be readable. Although an external source template program or website is not as closely integrated with your genealogy program, you will achieve a better result in the long run.  You gotta use the right tool for the job.

Here are a couple examples:

BiblioExpress (free) is a separate program you install on your computer. It keeps a database of your sources and you can automatically generate a source citation to copy and paste into your genealogy program.

EasyBib (free) is a website where you can generate a source citation to copy and paste into your genealogy program.

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