Transcribing Historic Documents (National Institute)
The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Why learn to transcribe when today’s technology gives us cameras, photocopy machines and scanners? Here are some good reasons for learning and practicing how to transcribe documents:
- Reproduction equipment not available or not allowed. Some archival institutions do not have the budget for photocopiers or microfilm reader-printers. Even if they have the equipment, they often can’t allow a fragile document or book to be further handled on a machine. Another situation is when a perhaps elderly relative possesses a unique family record and will not let it out of her sight. Unless you have a high-tech camera with you, you must use your transcribing skills.
- You received a transcript of a document or book pages from someone else. How do you know if it was correctly deciphered? Do you know the skill level of the transcriber? Hopefully you have either been provided with the citation to its source, or your knowledge skills help you to recognize it. By going to the original source and making your own transcription, you may be surprised at the differences between the two transcriptions.
- Your recipient or reader may not have your skills. Usually you are sharing progress in your family history research—with relatives or a readership or perhaps you are working for a friend or client. They may not be able to decipher handwriting or completely read a photocopied document. Your transcription alleviates the process for them.
- You made a photocopy or a printout and it went missing. In mysterious ways, photocopies of important documents can become separated from your notes, family files or a family report, especially if this information has been passed through many hands. By including a transcription of the document in your notes, files or reports, you still have a satisfactory record of it and can return to the source again.
- Last and by no means least: the exercise itself is a learning experience. Every time you transcribe a document, it forces you to pay attention to each detail. It encourages you to immerse yourself in the style of the record’s period. You learn the “flavor” of customary formats and language for certain kinds of documents, legal or otherwise. Your comfort level with unfamiliar types of record groups rises with such application. You increase your skill at deciphering handwriting that may be archaic or badly scrawled or phonetically spelled.
- The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, Standard No. 11 (p. 5).
- Mary Bell wrote an excellent chapter called “Transcripts and Abstracts” in Professional Genealogy, a Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians.
- See also the “Test Your Skills” section.
A transcript or transcription is a true word-for-word rendering of a document with the original punctuation and spelling. All notes and marks on any page are copied as faithfully as possible in the presented formatting. Depending on the condition and legibility of an old document, it may require considerable concentration and perhaps comparison with another in the same scribe’s hand. Whether a document was created or hand-copied for legal purposes (e.g. wills, deeds), or written by an agent on behalf of an uneducated party (e.g. letters, petitions, applications), does not necessarily guarantee that it will be literate or easy to read. Particular points to note are:
You may see run-on sentences, missing periods and other punctuation. Diacritical marks are items like long dashes (—) or the tilde (~) or the et cetera (&c) which pepper old documentation. A superscript letter or letters is often underlined to indicate missing letters in an abbreviated word. Any abbreviations in the text should be transcribed ‘as is’. Usage like Jany or Margt should not be ‘interpreted’ as what you think it might mean.
Deciphering again depends on the habits of the scribe. If possible, it is usually helpful to look at other samples of the person’s writing—if the document is part of a series. Be aware of flourishes on the ends of words, which may first appear to be an ‘e’ or ‘s’. Confusing capital letters need extra attention and comparison, with other words in the document and the contextual meaning. For example, the misreading of a capital ‘S’ for a capital ‘L’ is not uncommon. If misspelling (as we know it) occurs regularly, read out loud to yourself. Imagine the phonetics. Words in the text that are inserted, underlined or struck out should be indicated that way in your transcript.
These archaic letters, some of them used well into the 19th century, are one of the biggest obstacles for a novice family historian.
__The old-style double ‘s’ written to look like ‘fs’ is transcribed as ‘ss’.
__The old-style thorn ‘y’ was pronounced, and is transcribed as, ‘th’.
__Be careful with an old ‘w’ which may resemble ‘no’.
While we encourage the usage of day (numeral) – month (letters) – year (in full numerals) in our own writing of articles, reports, family histories, etc, in a transcript they must be exactly as presented. We do not ‘interpret’ old-style calendar dating or Quaker style as modern equivalents.
Square Brackets and Illegible Words
Square brackets always signal that legibility is an issue! Do not use round parentheses when transcribing! If part of a word, or a whole word or a phrase is illegible, use square brackets to enclose the difficult part. Question marks can be used if you have doubt about a word. With a phrase or longer passage, indicate how long it is.
The result may look like:
- ... north by northwest measuring sixteen [?] chains to the next marker ...
- ... north by northwest measuring [sixteen?] chains to the next marker ...
- ... north by northwest measuring s[----]en chains to the next marker ...
- Written signed sealed [__3 words___] by the said testator in our pre[sence?] at his request ...
Comments and Interpretation
Any comments about interpretation (as opposed to transcription) should be reserved for footnotes or endnotes. For example with the liberal use of pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ you may want to footnote that this refers to son John (not son Peter) and so on.
Sample Document of a Land Petition
Study the SAMPLE document and its transcription.
Sample Document of a Land Petition
Transcription of the Sample Document
James Rayen petition, Upper Canada Land Petitions, RG 1, L 3, vol. 446, R Miscellaneous/131; microfilm C-2804, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
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