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Abstracting & Transcribing Genealogical Documents

Cutting Out the Fat: Rules & Techniques for Genealogical Abstracts


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An abstract is a summary of the important points of a document. With regards to most documents and sources, this includes names, dates, places and other information that could be of use in solving genealogical problems. Extraneous words, such as legal language, are omitted. Abstracts are especially useful for legal documents such as deeds and wills, where photocopying multiple, lengthy records can be time-consuming, expensive, or impractical.

Abstracting isn't very complicated, but it does take practice. Choosing which particular words are significant enough to include often requires some knowledge and experience with the record type, location and time period. Generally, it's considered good practice to include everything which a genealogist might find significant or helpful - names, dates, places, monetary amounts, land descriptions, witnesses, relationships, etc. The information which is typically omitted is the "boilerplate" language - the standard phrases and legal jargon found in most similar documents. Other excess verbiage which provides no real information of genealogical value is also omitted. In the case of an estate inventory, the list of items is generally left out of an abstract, though a summary of the important items might be included (with a note on what was done added in square brackets). If you're not sure if a specific item is genealogically significant, include it. You don't want to have to make another trip back to investigate the original!

Examples of text which would generally be omitted from an abstract:

  • being weak in body but of perfect mind and memory
  • This indenture made this day
  • In witness whereof I have set my hand and seal
  • To have and to hold the said bargained premises with all the commodities thereunto belonging
If a lengthy portion of a document is genealogically significant, then include it as written in your abstract, set off by quotation marks. This is often used for the land boundary description in deed records, for example.

Abstracting styles vary from genealogist to genealogist. Some recommend the use of forms which help you pick out the important details in a document. Most abstracters prefer to handwrite their own abstracts, however, as this allows them to preserve the original order of the information. The capitalization of surnames also varies from abstracter to abstracter. Many prefer to capitalize surnames or even full names to provide for easy scanning, while some say that names should be copied as originally written. If you choose to capitalize surnames, then using small caps helps to improve readability.

The best way to develop and improve your own abstracting skills is to take a hands-on workshop (often offered at national genealogy conferences), by reading the published abstracts of others, and through practice, practice, practice.

Abstract Tip: When you're not sure if particular language used in a document could be considered "boiler plate," examine similar documents from the same time period. This is especially useful for deed books (and will books) where you can look at the deeds before and after the one you're abstracting for clues.
Don't forget! Your abstract isn't complete without a citation to the original source. Anyone who reads your work should be able to use your documentation to easily locate the original in case they ever wish to make a comparison.

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