Transcribing documents for genealogy may sound like a waste of time, but it isn’t! By properly transcribing a genealogy record such as a will or deed, you may find clues for your research that would have otherwise been overlooked. Take a look at these helpful tips for transcribing genealogy records.
Transcriptions and abstractions are suggested for a reason. In the book titled “Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians,” author Mary McCampbell Bell says:
“Skilled transcripts and abstracts are the very foundation upon which reliable research is built.”
There are rules dictating how proper transcriptions and abstractions should be made. When the rules are not followed, we may interpret the data and meaning of the document incorrectly. By not taking the time to transcribe a genealogy record appropriately, you may miss out on important clues to expand your research further.
[Note: The Professional Genealogy book mentioned above has been recently updated. You will find that new manual titled “Professional Genealogy: Preparation, Practice and Standards,” also edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills by clicking here.]
What is a Transcription?
A transcription is a copy of a document word-for-word. This means all the spelling, grammar, and punctuation is to be copied exactly…even if it is “wrong.” An abstraction of a document is a summary of the information found within the document.
Though it is more time consuming, I prefer to make a transcription, rather than an abstraction, if at all possible. Like I said, transcribing a genealogy record is more time consuming, but when I go word-for-word, my understanding seems to be heightened and I find myself able to understand the record more deeply.
Tips for Transcribing a Genealogy Record
If you want to give it a go, here are some tips for transcribing a genealogy record.
1. Begin your transcription by stating that this is a transcription, include YOUR name, when you made the transcription, and a source citation of the document. I have received many transcriptions in which there has been no indication of the transcriber and no indication of whether the record was transcribed, abstracted, or extracted. Some transcriptions included no date! This important information indicates to the reader of the transcription the validity and credibility of the document. An example might look like this:
2. Indicate in a sentence or two a description of the document including problems such as tears, smudges, etc. For example, if the document is torn, you might say, “Though the record seems to be complete, there is a small tear in the bottom right-hand corner.” By indicating any problems with the document, the reader knows that you have considered any potential problems in the accuracy of your transcription. Other problems you might make mention of include: pen smears, faded writing, words in the margin or words cut off in the binding, and stains.
3. Always spell the words in the document just as you see them, even if you know they are spelled incorrectly. If you are concerned that the reader will not understand the word is copied correctly, you can indicate you understand the word to be spelled incorrectly by adding [sic] after the word. (i.e. “I hear [sic] by appoint Joseph Kincaid as my executor.”)
4. Keep all abbreviations just as they appear in the document. This includes name abbreviations such as in the case of “Chas” for “Charles,” “Wm” for William, etc.
5. Transcribe punctuation when it is used in the document and not just because you think a comma should go there! Imagine a will record that lists the names of children as “Johnathan Dale Maggie and Sarah,” you might interpret that to mean there are four children; Johnathan, Dale, Maggie, and Sarah. However, what if the document refers to a boy they called Johnathan Dale and his sisters, Maggie and Sarah. By adding the comma after Johnathan, you have changed the meaning. If the document does not use commas or periods, do not add them. Leave it as-is…even if you know that Johnathan and Dale were two different people. To have an accurate transcription, you must copy it word-for-word.
6. Indicate when you can’t determine a word or words. Many old documents are difficult to read. Perhaps you come across a word and only a few letters can be made out. Let’s say you determine the word begins with “stu” but are unsure of the rest. You can transcribe it as “stu____ [unsure of the last few letters].” If it is an entire word or words that you are unsure about, indicate that with something like [unsure of the last three words.]
7. Transcribe words that have been crossed out. On occasion, you will find a word (or several) have been crossed out. When this happens and you can read what has been crossed out, you should transcribe it like this:
8. Beware of the “leading s.” Prior to about 1820, a handwritten double ‘s’ might look more like an ‘fs.’ This is called a “leading s” or “long s.” Names like “Jesse” or “Bass” may look like “Jefse” or “Bafs.” By being aware of the leading s, you can transcribe the words correctly. In this case, it is acceptable to transcribe “Jefse” as “Jesse.”
9. When transcribing documents that are partially handwritten and partially typed, you should underline the words that are handwritten and make a note of that to your reader.
Are there genealogy records in your family files that need to be transcribed? Consider going back through them and practicing the skill of transcription. You might be surprised what clues you had previously overlooked! Happy hunting!
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