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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Abstracts and Transcriptions
by Rhonda R. McClure

July 29, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

As we research our ancestry, we are supposed to be able to back up our claims with proof. These days, that usually means photocopying or printing out what we have discovered. However, what do you do when you are in the middle of a cemetery or the repository won't let you photocopy the fragile record?

You will want to get out your trusty pencil and notebook. While you can use a pen, you will find it is a lot easier to make changes using a pencil, especially when working with those hard-to-read records. Also, the repository may have rules against bringing in anything that could leave a permanent mark such as ball point pens.

There are many different records that you can abstract or transcribe. They include

  • Census records
  • Deeds
  • Town Records
  • Wills
  • Cemeteries
  • Vital Records
Abstracting and transcribing offer a way to write down the information you find.

To Abstract or To Transcribe

You will find that there is a time and place to abstract and likewise to transcribe. In fact, you may be abstracting already and just don't know it. Every time you use a census form to scratch down the pertinent details for your ancestor's entry in the census pages you are abstracting. This is the difference between abstracting and transcribing:

Abstracting is the act of recording the pertinent details from a given record.

Transcribing is the act of copying down verbatim the entire record.


When you are abstracting a record, it is important to record all pertinent facts: names, dates and places. If at all possible, you will want to use a form unique to the record you are abstracting. This allows you to be the most thorough. There are forms galore online and available for sale from different genealogical vendors. By filling out such a form, even as a beginner, you will be guaranteed to record all the important information.

You can get abstract forms for abstracting in

  • Census records
  • Land records
  • Wills
  • Probate records
  • Cemetery records
  • Tombstones
  • Obituaries


Whenever time allows, you should plan on doing a transcription. Even if you are planning to make a photocopy of the given record, there are times when a transcription can be a life saver. When dealing with hard-to-read microfilmed records, sometimes the time taken to transcribe while you have the microfilm can save hours of frustration later on.

Transcribing has a plus in that you are in essence getting the entire record. You are much less likely to miss something when you are transcribing. It is the nature of the transcribing that forces you to go word by word, line by line.

Unfortunately transcription can take a long time, especially with lengthy documents. However, do not just make a photocopy and then put the microfilm back. Even if you don't do a transcription right then and there, you will want to compare your photocopy with the original to guarantee that the entire copied document is legible. That way, when you do have the time to go through it, you won't be banging your head against a wall trying to figure out what those squiggles mean.

Either Or?

Believe it or not, abstracting and transcription are not mutually exclusive. There are times that I have done both. The abstract allows me a quick look at the high points of the given record, whereas the transcription allows me to verify that I have not misunderstood the relationships or the general thinking behind the document. And today with notebook computers and word processors, you can quickly transcribe anything. Plus, there are programs such as Clooz to aid you in your abstracting.

So the next time you are working in the records, keep in mind that if you take the time to abstract and transcribe the records now, you won't be overlooking anything and will not find yourself having to return to the records at a later date to verify the information you thought you knew.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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