Online databases - citing when there doesn't seem to be enough info

Hello, I'm new to creating proper source citations, though I have created plenty of improper ones... and I have a question about citing records from a certain website - 

For one thing, there are no actual database titles. Another thing, the marriage, birth, and alot of the death records give no information as to the source of the images, that is the "source of the source." This is addressed in the article available on the above link. Basically it says that identification of the original ledgers etc. was not included online.

For an example i take the marriage of John Spitsnogle and wife Catharine in 1842 in Berkeley County. There are 3 records (one with the name John Spitznagle). One image is a marriage bond, another is some type of marriage ledger alphabetized by surname, and the other image seems to be the original ledger copied onto another paper. Each record has a page number but of course there's no way of knowing what book it is in.

The best citation i can come up with is the following. Am I wrong in creating a title for the database when that isn't the title? Could this citation be used for all 3 records? If not how should it vary for each?

"West Virginia Marriages, 1780 - 1971," online images, West Virginia Division of Culture and History, West Virginia Vital Research Records ( Accessed 18 April 2012), Berkeley county marriages, entry for John S. Spitsnogle and Catharine Perrell, married 24 June 1842; citing original records at Berkeley County Courthouse, Martinsburg, West Virginia. 

Submitted byEEon Thu, 04/19/2012 - 21:56


ADesc, you’re off to a good start. As for any “improper” past you might have, where you've been is where most history researchers come from!

“Citing when there doesn’t seem to be enough info” is a common problem, as you may have gathered from QuickLesson 4. Many online databases also lack titles—especially at websites where one centralized search-box covers many different records. We are all grateful that the West Virginia State Archives and the Genealogical Society of Utah have launched this digitization project and are making the images available on line. But, until citations are added there, we’re left to "make do" as best we can.

The basic principle for citing untitled things is this: We create a descriptive identifier that we use in place of a title, but we do not put quotation marks around our words because we are not quoting anything. (EE 2.22, p. 53 elaborates somewhat on this. The first part of EE 2.22 is reproduced under this website’s “Sample Text Pages” tab, but the last part is not. )

Scanning the website you used, we see another solution to your dilemma—one based on the following observations: 

  • The website title would be West Virginia Division of Culture and History. That is also the name of the “creator/owner” of the site—a common situation with many government agency websites. When this occurs, there is no need to redundantly use that ID in both fields; the creator field can be left blank.
  • The phrase you’ve also used in the position for the website title (“West Virginia Vital Research Records”) does not seem to appear as a title on any page at the site. That particular phrase does appear several times in a Google search that leads back to your cited page. As a “phrase” it can also be found via the site’s own search engine, but each time it leads to a differently titled page.
  • The URL you give leads to a page that reads “Vital Research Records Search Selection.” That page states that the Vital Research Records Project is placing birth, marriage, and death “certificates” online, and it invites us to choose one of those categories. Each choice we make leads to a differently title page that offers search boxes.  (And, as you wisely note, much of what is being posted is a register or a bond, rather than a "certificate.")

All things considered, the clearest approach for those who use your citation—or for you when you come back to your citation after you have mentally gone cold about the site itself—would seem to be this:

Database title: Use the exact page title to which your URL leads: “Vital Research Records Search Selection.”

Website title: West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

Image data: The details you give about the specific document are headed in the right direction. Given that the image you are looking at carries a register title at the top of the page, it would be best to cite that exactly, in quotation marks, followed by the page numbers that are also visible on the image.

“Source of the source”:  As you note, this does not actually appear in the database, so we would not say that the website or database was “citing …..” anything.

Two other bits of finessing would make your citation clearer to users.

  • The exact title of a website, like the exact title of other published, standalone works (books, journals, etc.), should be italicized.
  • A space should come after the URL and before the colon. Otherwise, your colon will be picked up by others as part of the URL and it will make the URL unworkable.

Recognizing that “Citation is an art, not a science” (EE 2.1), our own rendition of your citation would be this:

"Vital Research Records Search Selection," database and images, West Virginia Division of Culture and History ( : accessed 18 April 2012), database entry for John S. Spitsnogle and Catharine Perrell, 21 July 1842, and register image for “Marriage Records—Berkeley County, Virginia,” pp. 34243


Submitted byadescendanton Fri, 04/20/2012 - 07:03

In reply to by EE

Thank you so much! I finally feel like i'm beginning to understand citations.

I've recently discovered that some of the record images at Vital Research Records contain a number at the top left, such as 4130812_00006, and from corresponding with the creators of the site I've found that this number refers to the roll and image number of the microfilm when the LDS filmed it.

In the case of any images that might contain such a number would it then be appropriate to include at the end of the citation something like "citing LDS microfilm roll 4130812, image 00006" or is that unnecessary?

Submitted byEEon Fri, 04/20/2012 - 20:32

ADesc, you raise an interesting issue. Can you point us to one of the actual documents that carry a number of this type?

As a rule, if a document carries a number (as, say, certificates often do), then we would usually cite "Document No. 4130812_00006." If, from probing more deeply elsewhere, we knew how to interpret that number to make something more meaningful out of it, then adding that explanation to the citation in our own words would make the citation more helpful. But, as a rule, we would not say that the provider of the document was "citing LDS microfilm roll 4130812, image 00006" unless the provider actually provided a citation that carried that fuller explanation.

The marriage record for John Perrell and Elizabeth Turner, 1805 in Jefferson county is one example. 

It seems that most all the death certificates have them - I did a random search for John Smith who died in 1930 and the first image i looked at had one. 

The email i received in reply to my query regarding this number stated -

"The number you mention in your message, which you see on the statewide certificates, refers to the roll number of the microfilm when the LDS filmed it, and the image number on that roll. "

That's why I wondered if that number should be interpreted as somewhat of a citation.

Submitted byEEon Sat, 04/21/2012 - 19:49

ADesc, the records at these two links do present an interesting use of those numbers. As used (and as we expected) the numbers are not self-explanatory. Each appears to be used by the site as its own "image number" and, at numerous other sites in the rapidly changing world of the Internet, those image numbers have also undergone changes. (EE 6.8)  The citation format given in our response of 4/19 remains the one we would recommend under present circumstances.

Submitted byjsuplickon Sun, 06/10/2012 - 09:25

After reading this very helpful discussion, I reviewed and revised the citation I constructed for an image of a marriage license record found on the website.

I had used West Virginia Archives and History as the website creator because they hold the copyright for the content as noted at the bottom of the search results page. Would you agree with this practice?



Submitted byLisaGorrellon Sun, 03/20/2016 - 16:43

I am doing a homework assignment and am just using this website West Virginia Division of Culture and History for the first time. What is different from the previous above discussion is I got to this website through a link from FamilySearch.

The database I used at FamilySearch was "West Virginia Marriages, 1780-1970,"  and I searched for  William G S Powell and Leah Rogers with the marriage of 1857.  At the record abstract page, I learned the film number for the record FHL microfilm 818,669 and image number 00105.  (

There was a button to go to the partner site, which brought me to the actual image of the marriage at West Virginia Division of Culture and History website.  (

Again as above, there is no identification as to what I'm looking at.  I am wondering if I should include FamilySearch as a layer for this citation. I went to the FamilySearch catalog and learned that film 818, 669 covers Marriages, v. O, 1, 2 1853-1898, which without looking at the actual film would be hard to determine which volume.

Lisa Gorrell



Submitted byEEon Sun, 03/20/2016 - 18:35

Lisa, you’ve definitely found a good example to show how modern technology—which is supposed to facilitate modern research—creates its own problems.

Let's first walk through a process you've probably already done; but we'll do it here for the benefit of readers:

1. Using the URL at the WV Archvies site (, let's take off the last extension, leaving us with this:

2. This puts us at a web page called "Vital Research Records Search Selection," which is said to be part of the “Vital Research Records Project.” It offers us 3 options: Birth, Death, and Marriage.

3. Clicking on "Marriage" sends us to a page headed "Search Marriage Records." There, we can input the name of the bride and groom and click "Search."

4. That leads us to a page with 1 result for "William G. S. Powell & Leah Rogers, 1857, Taylor County, 1029 kb."

  • Clicking William's name, gives us a data page that tells us nothing more about the marriage than what the prior page gave us.
  • Clicking the option "View the record image," we get the image on which there is a small page number "21." 

But, nowhere yet, have I seen any identification of the register in which that page appears.  And, as you say, the site doesn't tell us that the images are made from microfilm.

There are at least three ways this might be handled: 1) feature the marriage record; 2) feature WVAH’s database with images; or 3) feature the FamilySearch database that led us there.

To feature the marriage record itself, we might approach it with a layered citation like this:

Marriage of William G. S. Powell to Leah Rogers, 1857, Taylor County, WV, unidentified register, page 21; imaged at “Vital Research Records [Project] Search Selection,” database with images, West Virginia Archives & History (, citing no source; indexed without book or page at "West Virginia Marriages, 1780-1970," database, FamilySearch ( : accessed 20 March 2016), citing Family History Library microfilm 818,669.




Submitted byBrian Gon Mon, 03/21/2016 - 16:30

When I see a reference to a FHL microfilm on a website, I always do a catalog search on FamilySearch for that microfilm number.  The images are often FamilySearch (although sometimes they aren't indexed).  If I find the record(s) I'm looking for, I only cite FamilySearch, not the original website (unless there's a compelling reason to keep the citation to the other website).  If the records aren't indexed, I always include the image number.

I did that with your "4130812" example and was directed to a collection that didn't contain that microfilm number.  It looks like "4130812" is actually a digital folder number, not a microfilm number.  That's something to be careful of (and note, if used).  A little bit of sleuthing turned up these records at FamilySearch:

--FHL microfilm 831,959 image 302 : Berkeley County, marriage bonds, vol. 6, p. 273

--FHL microfilm 831,960 image 61 : Berkeley County, marriage bonds (1781-1858), p. 342

--FHL microfilm 831,960 image 189 : Berkeley County, marriage record (1781-1854), p. 73

What's also nice about using the images in FamilySearch is that it's possible to determine the context for the records.  That mysterious p. 342 record, for example, is the index for the volume that contains the bond.


Submitted byEEon Mon, 03/21/2016 - 17:03

Brian, thanks for adding a response to Messages 3 and 5 above.  You make a good and helpful point and underscore why our own responses at Messages 4 and 6 pointed out: "As a rule, we would not say that the provider of the document was 'citing LDS microfilm roll 4130812, image 00006' unless the provider actually provided a citation that carried that fuller explanation." Had we done so in the case above, then we would have mischaracterized what 4130812 represents. It's a good reminder to all.

And your final comment is spot on!