So far the discussion here has covered complete, word-for-word transcriptions of old documents. The reality however is that most online wills collections are the work of teams without consistent standards, are usually incomplete and mostly consist of a mixture of brief outlines, longer summaries and only the occasional full transcript. Kathie Weigel's remarkable collection of Cornish wills consists mainly of abstracts. Nick Hidden's collection of 1,000 Berkshire wills is a mixture of long and short versions (and, by the way, badly needs a typographical makeover). There is generally little motivation to provide complete transcripts, especially when it comes to wordy and legally complex 19th century wills.
Abstracts greatly simplify the task of publishing any deeds collection. Eve McLaughlin's booklet Wills before 1858 (Solihull, FFHS, 1995) suggests this comprehensive list of essential details to be noted from English wills:
Nick Hidden suggests that at the very minimum, an abstract should contain:
Not only are such abstracts quicker for a transcriber to write. They are also easier for an end-user to read. And as we have already noted, a good transcription should not only expand what has been unduly abbreviated: it should also compress down to what the modern reader really wants to know. So why not offer readers a first view of all the deeds in the collection as abstracts rather than full text? And wouldn't it be even better if only a single source file had to be put on the Internet, but could be visible in two ways, expanded and collapsed!
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