Transcribing and Abstracting Documents

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One of my greaat pleasures in working for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies is the consultations i have with students. My students in Analysis and Skills Mentoring 2 and 3 struggle through transcription and abstracting assignments. Some I am sure will never tackle such tasks again, and neverrise to the great potential they have as genealogists of professional quality. These skills are critical for advanced research.

Many genealogists today have become dependent on photocopies, microfilms, digitized images etc that can be copied without going through the intellectual exercise of transcribing (writing out every word and laying it out as it appears in the original) and abstracting (trimming away the boiler plate and identifying the core information in a document). This lack of experience in this complex information transfer activity is not solely a problem with genealogists. About 10 years ago a colleague at a university in California described how this dependence on the copier was the Achilles heel of many of his grad students in histiry. The problem was deemed so serious that his history department started teaching transcription and abstracting to sophmore history students.

All this came to mind when I read a comment about transcribing and abstracting by Barbara Vines little about a new course available from National Genealogical Society. The on-line course is logically called,
Transcribing, Extracting, And Abstracting Genealogical Records

Click here for details.

There are of course some other avenues for learning about developing these skills. for example Linda Woodward Geiger did a very nice article, “Transcribing & Abstracting” in NGS Newsmagazine (July/August/September 2006) pp.14-17. Its a good introduction.   I  ususally recommend two other sources to guide there learning

Bell, Mary McCampbell. “Transcripts and Abstracts” in Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians. Elizabeth Shown Mills, editor. (Baltimore:Genealogical Publishing, 2001)

Greenwood, Val D. “Abstracting Wills and Deeds” The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. 3rd edition. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2000

Of course, there is the pesky problem of reading old handwriting. You cannot transcribe what you cannot read. My friend Elizabeth Briggs developed a great on-line course on paleography available from the National institute for Genealogical Studies.  Another acquaintence, Kip sperry developed a workbook on this. Reading Early American Handwriting was published in 1998 by Genealogical Publishing.

Although you can learn a lot from these sources and course, it becomes obvious that proficiency comes from practice. After transcribibg hundreds if not thousands of parish register entries, and dozens of wills and related documents. I still struggle for proficiency.

I personally recommend that every genealogical society consider sponsoring workshops on paleography, transcription and abstraction annually. One year paleography, the next year  transcription & abstraction..  These could be 2 or 3 hour workshops– or all day events

And if these skills are needed. Who is going to teach them?

What do you think?


One response to “Transcribing and Abstracting Documents

  1. I haven’t always been able to use a copier or other repro method for the documents I found, for instance, at my local LDS Family History Center. I can’t always get to the one printing microfilm reader they have. I’ve also had the experience of finding information important to my genealogy in a book too fragile to place onto a copier or scanner. So I had transcribed documents before I took the Analysis and Skills courses. (And, of course, in taking the course found that I hadn’t been doing it exactly right, but now I know better.) I agree that it’s a necessary skill.

    I also think that abstracting especially causes us to think about the document we are looking at and the information in it. In fact, even with documents for which we have photocopies or digital copies, it could only help to abstract them as part of the process of analyzing them, reducing them to the essentials. It’s just another way of looking at them, and the more ways we can examine a document, the better.

    This sounds like a great topic for a lecture to my local genealogical society, for one. And, as I probably will be teaching classes for them beginning after the New Year, that sounds like a great topic for a class.

    Thank you!

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