As part of the online skill-building education at The National Institute for Genealogical Studies, new students, as well as professional genealogists, learn the importance of Transcribing every document they discover in their family research. Although it may take extra effort to make a transcription, the benefits will soon be apparent. How often have you left a document written in an older script for a few days, and when you returned to your research, you found that you needed to decipher the handwriting again?
The first step is to make a copy of the original document and put it away. This is especially true for those of fragile materials. By using this copy to make a transcription, the text of a document can be worked on, while avoiding the wear and tear of the original document. Never write on an original; copies of documents can be marked with notes, highlighters, and notations for further examination and research, preserving the original document. First, let’s look at a definition.
What is a Transcription?
A transcription is a true, word-for-word rendering of a document with the original punctuation and spelling (i.e., an exact copy of the original, line by line, sentence by sentence, word by word, and letter by letter). All notes and marks on any page are copied as faithfully as possible in the presented formatting. It includes all spellings, capitalizations and punctuations as it was written. No corrections are made to spelling or capitalization. It includes the whole record—front and back, with all its headings, insertions, endorsements, notations, etc.
By transcribing everything on a document, we don’t miss those important clues. We can have a tendency to skim over long blocks of text, or those oh-so-familiar boilerplate sections. By doing so, you could miss that slightly different instruction, or that note tucked in the middle of the text.
Transcribing forces us to record every single word (and symbol!) and explore why it was included, or used in that fashion. Transcriptions take obscure handwriting and reveal the contents in “plain English,” making it much easier to read and to tease out the finer details needing to be clarified. It can be a challenge, don’t give up!
Sometimes, handwriting really does need letter-by-letter deciphering. Many letters can look the same; some letters may even be illegible. Some letters just need time. If they have you stuck, walk away and come back with fresh eyes – an hour later, or the next day. It is amazing how you can see it so clearly the next time. When having difficulty with a particular word, count how many letters there are. Use blanks (like in hangman) and try to figure out the word that could fit in the context of that sentence. Sometimes, it is like solving a coded message.
Don’t change any spelling, even when it varies on the same page. There was no “A” for correct spelling – they often wrote phonetically. Try speaking it out loud (and with a strong accent!). Don’t expand abbreviations, especially for names. Edd could be Edward or Edmund. Keep the original capitalizations (or lack of), and keep the punctuation exactly the same. Often personal letters are written as one long sentence!
These are just a few tips to start. You can develop your Transcription Skills – it just takes practice and patience. See the list of our core Transcription courses below.
Check back next week for more skill-building tips.
Previous Transcription Tuesday blog post:
Transcription Tuesday Index
These three core courses demonstrate Transcription principles. They are offered monthly, beginning on the first Monday of every month: Register today!
Methodology-Part 2: Organizing and Skill-Building (Basic Level)
Skills: Transcribing, Abstracting & Extracting (Basic Level)
Palaeography: Reading & Understanding Historical Documents (Advanced)
Visit our website for a complete list of online courses offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. Check our Course Calendar here.
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