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Beginning Lesson #24
Using Good Transcription Practices

DearREADERS,
Today I will meet with my beginning genealogy students at Manatee Technical Institute. We've been discussing the proper methods for writing down what we can manage to decipher from old family documents. The key to good family history research is accurate interpretation of documents. Unfamiliar handwriting, fading old originals and poor quality photocopies contribute to difficulty in reading, and perhaps to the drawing of incorrect conclusions about family relationships.

TRANSCRIPT OR ABSTRACT?
Transcripts are word-for word notations of the contents of a document. Abstracts are merely notations of essential phrases -- perhaps names and dates, which the abstractor (read -- not you) feels are most important. 

For instance, an abstract of a will might mention the heirs, date signed and the name of the individual. However a transcription would relate all decipherable words, thereby listing other information such as:
-- the names of all heirs
-- name and value of real property
-- itemization of personal property
-- the names of the witnesses, etc. 
There are hidden benefits when witnesses turn out to be next-of-kin!

I thought it peculiar that an 18th century ancestor's will indicated the intended disposition of a belt buckle, a linen shirt, a riding crop, a bowl and spoon. However, as I became more experienced with colonial Pennsylvania research, I began to realize that this was more the norm. My ancestors had to beat the flax to make the linen thread, to weave the cloth from which the shirt was made. It was not uncommon for a German farmer to be so fortunate as to have two shirts and two pairs of pants. Amazing by our 20th century standards.

Genealogists just happen to relate better to transcriptions, because you'll get the more detailed picture of your ancestor. 

WILL PHOTOCOPIES SUFFICE?
It is important to also transcribe the document while viewing it even though you have a photocopy to take home from your visit to the library or archive.

Make your best photocopy. Whenever possible make a DRY (toner) photocopy of the document. Older WET photocopy machines tend to overly distort the copy, making transcription doubly challenging. If the document is on microfilm or microfiche, try also taking a NEGATIVE photocopy of the document, where the letters will appear white and the background black. This sometimes brings faded documents into better focus.

After all that photocopy effort, why do I still insist that you transcribe the document before you leave the microfilm viewer? Let me relate a true scenario from personal research. When visiting the National Archives last month, I made several great finds in US Federal census microfilms. Naturally I made photocopies of each important entry, but sadly noted that the lettering of the photocopies was obviously less legible than when viewed on the original microfilm. 

My solution is to systematically go back to the microfilm reader and made a transcription of the record after each photocopy from microfilm is taken. Census transcription forms have the exact column headings and rows for each census, and expedite accurate transcriptions. 

Typical census microfilm photocopies are 11X17 inches, which fold in half and insert in top loading sheet protectors beautifully. However, the transcription forms provide all the information in 8.5 X 11 inches. It's easier to review my (neatly) handwritten transcription than to flip back and forth from one side of the page to another on the actual photocopy of a census record. 

BEFORE YOU TRANSCRIBE
Familiarize yourself with the handwriting. When working with a particular deed book, for instance, study the other deeds before and after your ancestor's in the same series. Usually the same clerk entered those deeds as well. From this, you can compare letters and numbers and become accustomed to that clerk's individual handwriting style. This idea helped me a lot with my census transcriptions.

ASSIGNMENT
Make photocopies of all original documents as you view them. Immediately compose an accurate transcription, including spelling grammar and punctuation errors as they appear in the original. Do not abbreviate anything, add anything or editorialize as you transcribe. Make your own notes, suppositions, etc on a separate sheet of paper. USE CAUTION! If some letters or words are illegible say so in your transcription as follows:

"I, Silas James S[?]vage solemnly swear that the foregoing is accurate according to [illegible] best recollection."

Your transcription should also provide author, title, volume, page number, microfilm or book call number, the name of the archives/library, and the date of your transcription along with your signature as transcriber.

When reviewing the original document later, your transcription can often make more sense than the obscure writing of the photocopy. (We tend to forget how to interpret the handwriting peculiarities.) By the same token, the original can be reviewed to verify the accuracy of transcription.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
DearMYRTLE,
Your friend in genealogy

 

1995-2005 Pat Richley HOME | Ask | Blog | BookShelf | ContactLessons | Listen | Add to My Yahoo | PodCast media RSS feed | Read | Search | RSS feed
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