Extraction, Abstraction, Transcription: What’s the Difference?

There are three activities that genealogical researchers do regularly, but sometimes lump them all under one term, saying that they are “transcribing” records. Well, yes, sort of, since a transcribing does involve rewriting a document.

However, the copies of records in one’s notes can be further subdivided into three types of information – an EXTRACTION, an ABSTRACTION or a TRANSCRIPTION. Do you know how they differ?

Let’s begin with an extraction, which is the act of copying information into a table format or pre-printed form. A perfect example of this is the blank U.S. census form.

We extract the exact same information found on the census taker’s page and enter it on a form or, in a slightly more high-tech version, into an Excel spreadsheet. Each piece of data is extracted from the original and entered into a form that uses the same or very similar format.

Next, we have an abstraction, which is a very different activity. There are legal documents such as land deeds and wills that include the same basic verbiage over and over.

Many land deeds of a certain era begin with “Know all here ye presents that . . . . . . .”

17th and 18th century wills opened with this statement or something very similar to it: “In the name of God, Amen. I, (so and so), being very sick and weak in body but of perfect mind and memory, thanks be given to God for it, and therefore calling to mind the mortality of my body and knowing that it is appointed unto all men once to die, do make and ordain this my last will and testament.”

Except for the mention of the testator (the person making the will), these words are not of importance to a researcher seeking the names of the heirs of the deceased.

Therefore, genealogists often abstract the important information, such as “I (so and so)”. . . . . and continue with “my beloved wife Mary”. . . . . . “my eldest son John” . . . . .my daughters Susannah, Elizabeth and Hannah”. . . . . . with ellipses (those dots separating details) indicating where words have been left out.

The final product includes all pertinent details relating to the testator and his heirs. All the legalese, so to speak, is omitted.

The last term is the one that is sometimes incorrectly used to combine all these activities into one. That term is: transcription.

A transcription is an exact copy, word for word with punctuation marks (or lack of), spelling errors, insertions, strikeouts and errors (known to you) all included in the transcribed version. Abbreviations are copied as found (Examples: sd. for said and Robt. for Robert). Illegible words are [bracketed].

Here is a paragraph from the will of John Hashof Montgomery County, Virginia, dated 1784:

And as concerning such worldly estate as God hath given me I give and bequeath in ye following manner:

Item, I give and bequeath to my loving wife my manshun hous and ye sole benifit of all ye land on ye north side of ye creek as long as she lives; with one black horse and a black mare, and two twin cows, one yew and a lam, and a [illegible], a bed and all ye furniture thereunto belonging; one large pot and a frying pan, one puter dish, one beason, and six spoons ; with 2 spining wheels, and 2 pair of cords and a hackle, one rideing saddle with a box iron and heaters and 2 pleats.

There are a number of spelling errors which have been transcribed from the original, but which need to be included to be accurate. The transcriber may include his/her own notes, enclosed in brackets to help with understanding.

Example: my manshun hous [mansion house]

Punctuation is also important, but even more so when there is a string of names. How many children does this testator have:

my children Mary Elizabeth Susannah Taylor John Simon James

Without punctuation, one might assume that there are seven children. What if commas are added to separate them?

my children Mary Elizabeth, Susannah Taylor, John, Simon James

Now there are only four and three of them have middle names. What a difference a comma makes!

In closing, there is one extremely important detail to remember about extractions, abstractions and transcriptions – at best, they are a secondary source copied from an original document. At worst, they might be a tertiary source – a copy of a copy of an original.

Occasionally, even originals have errors. Each time a copy is produced the likelihood of an error or omission increases. If you are wondering how often that happens – it is common!

Two examples that have happened to me include a published book that abstracted an index from a book of marriages. The bride and groom I was looking for was not in it. However, by coincidence, I had written to the county clerk inquiring if there was a marriage record just before I found the book on a library shelf. Imagine my surprise when an envelope from the courthouse arrived a week later with a photocopy of the marriage record!

The second example involves an abstracted will. I was sure the person I was researching was a child of the man who had died, as they were the only family with the surname in the county at that time. Again, I pulled a library book off the shelf and was delighted to find an abstract of the man’s will in that book. I quickly scanned the names of the heirs – but my guy was not among them. I was still sure he was a child and, being in the Family History Library, I pulled the microfilm of the county wills. I found the entry, read the will myself and my guy was indeed a child of the deceased. He was a middle child of many and the person doing the abstracting skipped over his name!

The take away lesson about extracts, abstracts and transcriptions – ALWAYS seek out the original to verify the information for yourself.






3 thoughts on “Extraction, Abstraction, Transcription: What’s the Difference?”

  1. Excellent and clear explanation. Please IMHO include your post on next week’s Friday Finds because these distinctions have real-world consequences for genealogy researchers! It’s too important to leave off your weekly list.

  2. Hmmm…I hadn’t really thought of taking the details from one form and putting them into another as different from actually transcribing.

    So, if instead of just creating a form for birth/death certificates and censuses, I literally typed out each word on them, that would be a true transcription rather than an extraction?

    Wish I had the time to do that…but I don’t.

    Great post, btw – many people (including me apparently) don’t understand the differences. I had always thought an extraction was taking the main pieces of information and listing them, while abstracting was more of a summary, and transcribing was copying the exact wording.

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