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An abstract is a brief summary covering the most important points of a larger work. An abstract allows the reader to quickly assess the usefulness or value of a particular work, or to access information more quickly. Abstracts typically describe rather than evaluate content. However, an abstract by definition is an abbreviation; that is, something is left out in order to present the information more efficiently, and it is up to the person creating the abstract to decide what to include and what to leave out. An abstract is an important and useful tool, but is not intended to replace the original work. Abstracts are a derivative source, and like any transcription are subject to error.

Abstracts are commonly found in the process of genealogy research and serve an important purpose, allowing researchers to wade through volumes of information more quickly and to more quickly determine what information meets their particular need. Before it became possible to microfilm or otherwise photocopy documents, abstracts were used as a way of transferring and sharing information. Genealogy societies made great contributions to genealogy by abstracting information in their local areas and publishing it in periodicals or books. Researchers will often find abstracts of birth, marriage, or death records compiled into a single volume or periodical. Obituaries, wills, and virtually any type of information may have been abstracted and published. It is also possible that the same information was abstracted and compiled by different individuals or groups at different times, and information may differ from one volume to another — errors in transcription are common. It is important to recognize this margin of error in abstracts and compilations of abstracts, and to verify any conflict of information.

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