Skillbuilding: Producing Quality Research
- Newsletter of the BCG
Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Producing Quality
Research Notes," OnBoard 3 (January 1997):
Photocopies. Transcriptions. Abstracts. Extracts. Translations.
As genealogists, we have wide-ranging options in the production
of our research notes - so wide that many are baffled as
to what these options actually represent and when
one is the most appropriate.
Photocopies are the ideal choice, when working onsite
at a distant repository. They capture a document entirely,
so that we (or our clients) may study the record at our
leisure, with assurance that crucial details have not been
Yet, the ideal is not always practical. Duplicating machines
are not always available. Oversized or fragile materials
often cannot be copied. Some repositories impose prohibitive
costs or limit the number of pages.
Modern technology offers a possibility that is reasonably
affordable: the digital camera. Depending upon memory, such
a camera can capture dozens of images in a single session,
then download them into our computers as graphics.
Transcriptions are verbatim copies that exactly duplicate
spelling, punctuation, and all other aspects of the original.1
Transcriptions represent the second-most-reliable form
of notes that we can produce. They are also time-consuming
and, thus, are not a popular option for researchers with
limited time onsite.
Two situations compel the careful genealogist to invest
- When researching legal documents (deeds, probates, etc.),
if we are not experts in the interpretation of legal language,
full transcriptions are best. The "rigmarole" we skip
over can have critical implications for our research,
a point recently explored in a pair of articles in the
National Genealogical Society Quarterly.2
- When we photocopy documents onsite, we should transcribe
them before relegating them to our files. The careful
thought that is required for accurate transcriptions will
produce a more-detailed analysis than abstracting often
does. And, as we continually reconsult our files, we'll
spare ourselves the extra time and concentration it takes
to adjust to each scribe's handwriting and reinterpret
Abstracts are summaries that preserve every important
detail. Proper abstracts also preserve the exact arrangement
of the data. This advice, of course, contradicts the teachings
of many Genealogy 101 classes, in which students are encouraged
to use abstract forms for common legal records. Such instruction
ill serves the fledgling genealogist in two ways.
- Beginning researchers seldom are experts in the interpretation
of law. By abstracting documents, they may lose the only
existing clues to identity or family connections.
- Abstract forms for legal documents rarely follow the
exact arrangement of text within those records. When the
text is segmented, to fit appropriately on the forms,
other clues can be lost and meanings obscured.
Abstracts are nonetheless useful, in at least two important
- When we set out to publish a body of records (for example:
local wills or deeds), careful abstracts are the most
- When we photocopy or transcribe records, it is still
useful to abstract important details onto our data summaries
for the individuals involved.
Extracts do not summarize. They pull out, verbatim,
a portion of a document, book, or article. They also require
quotation marks around the entire text that is being copied
word for word, punctuation point for punctuation point.
Obviously, an abstract may contain an extract, if certain
portions of a document are deemed so important that they
need to be recorded verbatim.
Often confused with the word transcriptions, translations
are similar in all but one important detail. Translations
are a complete recording that converts the text from
one language to another.
Researchers do have a variety of choices in the notetaking
process. Making the right choice is the factor that
often determines whether a research goal is met or a problem
Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL
1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Skillbuilding: Transcribing
Source Materials," OnBoard 2 (January 1996): 8.
2. George R. Ryskamp, "Common-Law Concepts for the Genealogist:
Marriage, Divorce, and Coverture," NGS Quarterly
83 (September 1995): 165-79; and 84 (September 1996): 165-81.
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
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