Thursday, August 16, 2012

Transcribing Documents

I received an email from Jim. He wanted to point out that you can learn a lot from the "boring" parts of a document. He gave the example of learning about a person's wealth and family dynamics by what was willed to whom. Point taken. I was actually trying to find a document that DIDN’T have as much property division in it so that I could avoid that point completely only because it would simplify things. I too am one to scrutinize inventories to see what all the deceased owned to put together a better picture of his wealth and I love it when I see a particular child get only a penance. A new mystery to solve! I don’t have my will transcriptions in a separate file so I had to just browse through my database. I had one that would have been perfect in that it was LOADED with boilerplate and no property division other than the wife getting "all that I own" but that will is 3 pages long and it would have been a bit much for a short blog. I thought Jim's point was a good one and I wanted to post it here.
Yesterday I gave some examples of the excess verbiage you find in legal documents (boilerplate). Today I thought I should explain the differences between a transcription and an abstract.

A transcription is an EXACT copy of the document complete with the exact formatting, capitalization, punctuation and spelling. An abstraction is when you pull out the important parts leaving behind the fluff. In an abstraction you still faithfully copy the spelling though you can reformat and fix punctuation and grammar errors. You will be putting the information into a new format so the punctuation and grammar will be yours. Spelling is never changed. If you want to clarify the spelling of something you can put the correction in brackets [ ]. Use brackets judiciously as they can really clutter up a document. Your readers can figure out that that "bequith" is really bequeath and you don't have to add an explanation. I like to use brackets to clarify the spelling of place names which might not be so easily figured out. When transcribing, if something is crossed out, you have to write it and then cross it out. If something is inserted about the line, you have to insert it above the line.

Abstracting documents is more of an art than a science. One of the best references I have found to learn how to transcribe and abstract is chapter 16 of Professional Genealogy.

Here is a very simple example of transcribing a document. I am using this one because it is nice and short and contains errors. This is as big as I can get it on here so you will need to make it bigger if you want to see it more clearly. NOTE: I can't get the exact formatting right (indentations, stuff to the right side of the page etc.) because of the HTML formatting required. I am just not that good with it. On the real transcription the top two lines are to the right with the first line indented more than the 2nd. That is what I mean about formatting.

August the 9, 1903.
Zimmamon Lee, Sr.

By ^all hom this May concern
I, Zinamoun Lee Sr will the
place back to John Lee at mine
and Nancy Lee death as he give
me and her the place for us a
home the north west 1/4 Sect 10
township 1 Range 14 contane
40 akers we want him to have
hit back as his own place as he
gave us the place. And John
you give Luner the Gray mar
and all the Rest of the cattle
and hogs keep them for your
mother to live off of and Joh[n]
you look after your mother and
see that she is cared for and
at her death you see that she is
put away nice and if tha are any
of the cattle and other stuff left
you children let your mother live
on the old place til her death
then the place is yours as you
give us the place for us a home
we want you to have it back.

witness: Minervia Wooderd
Riley Wooderd

Yours Zinnamoren Lee

Filed the 7 day[?] 6 day of August A D 1929

This will was a loose paper found in the probate office in Marion County, Mississippi. Did you notice how many different ways the testator's name is spelled?

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Michele,

    I've had the same problem with the formatting - especially getting lists to line up (like inventories) and getting line indents right.

    My line indent trick is to use ............. and then make it the background color so that it doesn't show on my blog. In your case, make the ................ brown. Sometimes they show up in a blog reader. Oh well!

    Keep up the good work here - I love your blog and your answers!

    1. Thank you so much for the tip, Randy. I can't wait to try it! And thank you for the nice comments :)