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Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, “Producing Quality Research Notes,” OnBoard 3 (January 1997): 8.

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 overlooked.

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 the time.

  • 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 his scrawl.


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 ways.

  • When we set out to publish a body of records (for example: local wills or deeds), careful abstracts are the most cost-effective choice.
  • 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 solved.


[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.


Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.