Oftentimes when doing genealogical research with original documents, you will find handwritten records done by clerks, doctors, or church officials. The quality of the documents varies according to the conditions in which they were kept. They may be faded, turning brown, or even crumbling, and if they have been digitally preserved these defects will still show. Additionally the original writing may be hard to decipher depending on the writing quality of the person doing it and your skill level with reading older manuscript styles. Given all these considerations, it is important that you transcribe these records for your genealogical files.
What is transcription? Transcription is a word-for-word documentation of an original record, including mis-spellings, abbreviations, and any other imperfection. Nothing is changed, added, or taken away. You are reading what is handwritten and putting it in what is our standard modern form: typewritten documents. This is necessary to do for several reasons:
1) Easy to Read – A modern type-written document is an easy to read version of the record, so when you return to it, you don’t have to figure it all out again.
2) Searchable – Typing it up on your computer you now have a searchable document for names and dates.
3) Back-up – A back-up copy of the record now exists beyond the original copy.
4) Sharing – It is easier to share the vital information in the document with family and in family tree software programs.
5) Interpretation – Many legal documents use Latin terms. With a transcription you can add the definition of the term as a footnote in the record so you understand completely what the term means.
6) Analysis – A copy can be made of the transcribed document that you can use to for analysis by circling items or adding more text. Nothing will be “ruined” with the original and your analysis will help your research in the future by showing your thinking and approach.
So how do you do transcribe a document? Use your preferred writing program for your computer, and start typing word-for-word what you read. If you come to a word you can not read, put some symbols in it’s place so you can come back to it. Here’s an example:
In this will from 1761,1 I make a first attempt at transcribing and put the symbol # where I can’t read or interpret the writing:
“The said acceptant prays allowance for his ### payments and Disbouments made only the ### as follows Viz.”
Notice I also include the mis-spelled capitalized word “Disbouments”. This is likely the word “disbursements” but I am transcribing, not correcting. I continue through the whole document adding in a symbol for words I didn’t get the first time. Then I go through the document a second time making sure I didn’t miss any words or add any extra words. Then I read it a third time seeing what words I can read that I couldn’t read before. What happens is you develop a fluency with the person’s handwriting as you go over the document, so you will be able to come back to the missing words and figure them out. Be sure not to add or leave out anything.
To help complete this work you will need practice in reading handwriting and I will have a post on that tomorrow. It also helps to understand the terms used in these documents and a great overall guide is Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 4th Edition. She covers every record you could use in doing research and puts it in context for how to interpret it and use it in genealogy. In the example above, I can reference her book and know “Viz” is short for Videlicet which means “to wit”. Then I can type “to wit” into google search and learn that it is a formal way to say “specifically”. In this will Charles Smith was providing a specific list of who was to be given money after his death.
Remember – don’t change your transcription with your newly learned definitions and simpler way of stating it. You can make a copy of your newly typed out document and add the word “analysis” to the file name, and then add in all your comments and thoughts in a different ink and/or font. Keep an original unmarked transcription, and then have your analysis document. You will thank yourself later when you come back to it and try to recall what you were thinking at the time! Taking the time to transcribe your genealogy records could provide you the clues you are looking for to complete your family tree.
Copyright ©2019, Denys Allen and PA Ancestors. All Rights Reserved. Feel free to link to original article. To otherwise use, please contact me.
1 Will of Charles Smith, Probate Year 1761, Pennsylvania, City of Philadelphia, administration files No. 102; Author: Philadelphia (Pennsylvania). Register of Wills; Probate Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania