Reliable research, reliable conclusions, reliable reports, and reliable publications all rest on one foundation: skill at note taking (Mills, 2001; p.293).
In order to be able to take good notes, whether a full transcript or an extract, we need to understand the context in which the original document was written. Words and phrases have changed meaning over time, and some parts of language become obsolete. Transcription is at the heart of both genealogical and historical research, since both depend on primary source material. Accurate research depends upon us having good transcription skills, and transcribing within a recognised framework so that others can utilise our research.
Presentation by Lt Col (Retd) Dr Keiron Spires QVRM TD
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This presentation formed part of a course on ‘Researching British Army Nurses’ and Keiron does reference the course in the video. He also mentions sharing difficult transcription problems via a discussion board. Here on the website you can get help with transcription issues by using our Contact page.
As described in the presentation, true transcribing 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. You may not wish to make a complete transcript, but rather extract such text as is useful for your research. In either case it is still best practice to follow some basic guidelines so that the transcript, or your own notes, are understandable in the future.
You may see missing full stops, commas, and other punctuation. Diacritical marks are items like long dashes (—) or the tilde (~) or the et cetera (&c) which you will find in old documents. 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 be left as is, because although it is usually obvious what the abbreviation is (like January and Margaret), any incorrect suppositions may lead your research in a wrong direction, and you will not be able to trace back errors to your original notes.
Deciphering again depends on the habits of the person writing the document. 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 or notes.
While we encourage the usage of day (numeral) – month (letters) – year (in full numerals) in the writing of articles, reports, family histories, etc, in a transcript or notes they should be exactly as presented. If you are concerned about a date being misinterpreted then add a footnote.
Square Brackets and Illegible Words
Square brackets are used to signal that legibility is an issue, rather than round parentheses. 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.
Comments and Interpretation
Any comments about interpretation (as opposed to transcription) should be reserved for footnotes or endnotes. Be consistent in the keeping of these so that you do not start to confuse yourself!
Deciphering Chicken Scratch: Tips and Tricks for Reading Old Handwriting
This is a YouTube video lasting 22 minutes from Archives.com.
References and Reading
BCG (2000) The BCG Genealogical Students Manual. Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing
Mills, ES (2001) Professional Genealogy. A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company