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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Research Skills: Abstracting Documents
While transcribing of a document is an exacting word-for-word process, abstracting is another very useful skill to develop. An abstract of a document is a summary of its salient information. It is (obviously) shorter than a full transcription, but retains all the important details. Abstracting strips away the rhetorical and legal language to present just the facts of the document in question.
An abstract is not the same as an extract which is a direct quotation from a document or book. We may include some extracts (in quotation marks) in our abstract when a phrase is unclear or ambiguous.
Forms or templates which are designed for you to ‘fill in’, such as for deeds or wills, are not recommended. Since there is so much variety of format and content in historical documents, filling in a form will disturb the original arrangement. Their format can also change meanings in the document’s words or phrasing.
Why do we do this? Why do we need to learn it? Historic documents are original sources that genealogists and family historians deal with on a regular basis. By transcribing them we become familiar with style, content and meaning. By abstracting them, we train ourselves to recognize and select the important elements. It is part of the self-education process by which we deliver the very best we can in our research and the reporting thereof. Abstracts save space, especially when dealing with a series of documents. But we can only create them properly when we have a good understanding of transcribing.
Boilerplate wording is very common in documents like deeds and wills. Boilerplate refers to the ‘legalese’ of the ‘signed sealed published and declared’ sort when a will is executed. In deeds when money has changed hands for a sale, you will see language like ‘receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged and by these presents do give, grant, bargain, sell, assign, transfer, release, convey and confirm unto ... [name of buyer].’ Such phrasing is not essential to the intrinsic meaning of the document.
Abstracting standards follow the rules of transcribing, although you have more flexibility in style or format. Some prefer to write their abstract as a paragraph; others prefer a point form outline.
Include (after removing all superfluous words/language):
Identifying the Document
Introduce your abstract by identifying it:
- Who is or are the principal figure(s) and what kind of document is it?
- Where is it located (your source citation)?
- When was the document created or recorded?
Staying Faithful to Original Order
Although this is a summary, it is best to list or describe the important items as they occurred in the original text. For example, in the SAMPLE document in your reading material, James Rayen’s basic request is “to be located” in a specific geographic area. However, we should show that piece of information in the order it appears, after his reasons for wanting to leave the United States.
Quotes and Extracts if Useful
As mentioned above, a direct quote from the document should be inserted if a meaning is unclear or ambiguous. Again looking at your sample document, do we know exactly what “British lines” refers to? We should not substitute “British territory” or “British army.” Since the document is undated, this simple phrase may have hidden clues. The phrase “to be located” is actually loaded with import. His request did not use the words “grant of land” or “Crown grant” or “bounty.” Until you have had experience with a number of similar documents, you will not fully comprehend significant phrasing.
Spelling, Dates ...
Personal names should always be spelled as in the document. Any other misspellings that seem to require explanation should be in square brackets. If the month in a date is abbreviated in the original, it is obligatory to copy it as is.
The same applies here as to transcribing: square brackets will indicate where a word or phrase is missing or illegible.
You may include a few words of clarification [in square brackets, of course!] e.g. if some punctuation is missing in a string of words and the meaning could be misinterpreted because of it. Question marks in square brackets can also be used to indicate uncertainty of a word or words.
TheBCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Standard 14) gives succinct instructions for abstracting, but once again we refer you to Mary McCampbell Bell’s chapter “Transcripts and Abstracts” in Professional Genealogy, A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians where you will find detailed examples of abstracting different kinds of documents.
Abstract of Sample Document
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.
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