I have been consulting with genealogists several evenings a week for about three years now and I’ve started to notice a few weaknesses in their education. Here is one that was a weakness of my own for some time.There is a real need out there for training in transcribing and abstracting documents like wills, estate inventories, deeds, mortgages and such works. These do not lend themselves to 50 minute instruction blocks, but are more suitable to two hour or three hour workshops.
How do you think this skill can best be taught? I’d like to hear what you think.
In a single 50 minute instructional period for “beginners” I think the most important thing would be to discuss: why transcribe and why abstract at all. What can you learn from the process? What’s important to transcribe? What’s the difference between transcription and abstracting? And then I think you need to give some handouts — probably several with examples of wills, deeds, mortgages, etc — which demonstrate the “boilerplate” parts of the item in question and the individual parts. I can’t think you would get much more than that done in a single shot.
For a longer workshop, I’d use more handouts, probably several in which palaeography wasn’t an issue, so that just transcribing or abstracting was the focus. One of the problems, I think, in transcribing or abstracting in a ‘cold case’ fashion where palaeography is an issue, is that being unfamiliar with the surnames and the locations on the item puts the transcriber or abstracter at a significant disadvantage.
By the time I got deeply involved in transcribing and abstracting material from court cases and estate sales in Edgefield, South Carolina (from about 1790-1940) I was so familiar with the surnames that I could easily read what the writer wrote. A person less familiar with the neighborhood and people who lived there would have been at a serious disadvantage.
I think, perhaps, what can best be taught are the principles and what’s important and less hands-on transcription. We each have to do it in the areas in which we are interested. While it is certainly possible to learn from doing ‘cold case’ transcription or abstraction, it is perhaps not the best use of time.
If you are working with a group, however, I think maybe a roundtable discussion with one item would be useful. Put out the item, and take suggestions about how the transcription/abstract should be formatted, what needs to be included (in the case of the abstract), and let the participants discuss the palaeographical issues. Some people are very good at reading handwriting and others have less experience, but can contribute and learn that way without being turned off by simply not being able to read the handwriting.
What do you think, Ken?
That sounds like one way to do it! Christine Rose taught a 2 hour workshop at the FGS conference one year. In hour one, we transcribed and early 19th century will. Then discussed our efforts. In hour 2 we created the abstract, and discussed that. Handwriting was not a real problem in the sample. I cannot recall the details off hand but I think Christine Rose gave us some general guidelines at the beginning of each segment, and reviewed them at the end. Frankly, it was a nicely put together uncomplicated workshop.
Are there other ways to do this?
Could it be simplified by offering three options for the abstract, asking the student to pick one and defend it as the best?
I have ordered a tape of Christine Rose’s 2 hour workshop (so I hope they pay her a royalty!). It’s not here yet, but I look forward to listening to it. I have learned a lot from tapes over the years (for which I hope everyone received royalties, though when my own fiction-writing workshops have been taped, by a different company, I never have, either!).
It would be interesting to see three abstract options and be able to discuss the merits and limitations of each. I’ve never had the opportunity. My experience with abstracting has come with reading the abstracts of Edgefield County Deed Books (by GeLee Corley Hendrix, books 1-12, and by Carol Wells, books 13-38) and then comparing various photocopied or microfilmed originals with their abstracts. Just the volume of exposure to them I’ve received over the years has been instructive. But, like everything else, doing it is the best teacher. You always think you know what to include and what to leave out — until you have to do it!
I remember hearing a tape of Christine Rose’s in which she said she read and transcribed many many wills and deeds verbatim until the actual doing so taught her what was “boilerplate” and what was unique to the particular item. Then she suggested knowing the laws to understand what the boilerplate bits meant and were “shorthand” for.
I think there is a place for workshops and good handouts and the expertise of people like her — and you — but I think that we all need to get our hands dirty by actually immersing ourselves in the records of our own research and getting to work. I know the more I bring to the courses I’ve taken at NIGS, the more I’ve got out of them. If I were taking them “theoretically” I’m sure that less of it would “stick” than is sticking now. I’m also sure I would be more accepting of what they say is “true” than I am, because I can see other alternatives and my experience with hands-on items elicits a different response from me than they want.