Abstracting & Transcribing Genealogical Documents

Transcription Rules & Techniques

Deed Record Books
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Photocopiers, scanners, digital cameras, and printers are wonderful tools. They make it easy for us to easily reproduce genealogical documents and records so we can take them home with us and study them at our leisure. As a result, many people researching their family history never learn the importance of copying information by hand - the techniques of abstracting and transcribing.

While photocopies and scans are extremely useful, transcripts and abstracts also have an important place in genealogical research.

Transcripts, word-for-word copies, provide an easily readable version of a long, convoluted or illegible document. The careful, detailed analysis of the document also means that we are less likely to overlook important information. Abstacting, or summarizing, helps bring out a document's essential information, especially helpful for land deeds and other documents with significant "boiler plate" language.

Transcribing Genealogical Documents

A transcription for genealogical purposes is an exact copy, either handwritten or typed, of an original document. The key word here is exact. Everything should be rendered exactly as found in the original source - spelling, punctuation, abbreviations and the arrangement of text. If a word is misspelled in the original, then it should be misspelled in your transcription. If the deed you're transcribing has every other word capitalized, then your transcription should as well.

Expanding abbreviations, adding commas, etc. risks changing the meaning of the original - a meaning that may become better clear to you as additional evidence comes to light in your research.

Begin your transcription by reading the record through several times. Each time the handwriting will likely be a little easier to read.

See Deciphering Old Handwriting for additional tips for tackling hard-to-read documents. Once you are familiar with the document, it is time to make some decisions about presentation. Some choose to reproduce the original page layout and line lengths exactly, while others conserve space by wrapping lines within their typescript. If your document includes some pre-printed text, such as a vital record form, you also have choices to make about how to differentiate between the preprinted and handwritten text. Many choose to represent the handwritten text in italics, but this is a personal choice. What is important is that you do make the distinction and that you include a note about your choice at the beginning of your transcription. e.g. [Note: handwritten portions of text appear in italics].

Adding Comments

There will be times when you're transcribing or abstracting a document that you'll feel the need to insert a comment, correction, interpretation or clarification. Perhaps you want to include the proper spelling of a name or place or an interpretation of an illegible word or an abbreviation. This is OK, provided you follow one basic rule - anything that you add that is not included in the original document must be included in square brackets [like this].

Don't use parentheses, as these are often found in original sources and could lead to confusion over whether the material appears in the original or was added by you while transcribing or abstracting. Bracketed question marks [?] can be substituted for letters or words that can't be interpreted, or for interpretations which are questionable. If you feel the need to correct a misspelled word, include the correct version within square brackets rather than using the word [sic]. This practice isn't necessary for common, easy to read words. It is most useful in cases where it helps with interpretation, such as with people or place names, or hard to read words.

Transcription Tip: If you're using a word processor for your transcription, be sure that the spell check/ grammar correct option is turned off. Otherwise the software may automatically correct those mispellings, punctuation, etc. that you are trying to preserve!

How to Handle Illegible Content

Make a note in [square brackets] when ink blots, poor handwriting and other flaws affect the legibility of the original document.

  • If you aren't sure of a word or phrase then flag it with a question mark in square brackets.
  • If a word is too unclear to read then replace it with [illegible] in square brackets.
  • If an entire phrase, sentence or paragraph is unreadable, then indicate the length of the passage [illegible, 3 words].
  • If part of a word is unclear, then include [?] within the word to indicate the portion that is unclear.
  • If you can read enough of a word to make a guess you can present a partially illegible word with the unclear portion followed by a question mark enclosed in square brackets such as cor[nfie?]ld.
  • If part of a word is obsured or missing but you can use context to determine the word, just include the missing portion within square brackets, no question mark necessary.

More Rules to Remember

  • A transcription typically encompasses the entire record, including margin notes, headings and insertions.
  • Names, dates and punctuation should always be transcribed exactly as written in the original record, including abbreviations.
  • Record obsolete letter forms with their modern equivalent. This includes the long-tail s, ff at the beginning of a word, and the thorn.
  • Use the Latin word [sic], meaning "so written," sparingly and in its proper form (italicized and enclosed in square brackets), following the recommendation of the Chicago Manual of Style. Do not use [sic] to indicate every misspelled word. It is best used in cases where there is an actual error (not just a misspelling) in the original document.
  • Reproduce superscripts such as "Mary" as presented, otherwise you risk changing the meaning of the original document.
  • Include crossed out text, insertions, underlined text and other changes as they appear in the original document. If you cannot accurately represent changes in your word processor, then include a note of explanation within square brackets.
  • Enclose transcriptions within quotation marks. If you are including a transcription within a larger text you may alternately choose to follow Chicago Manual of Style conventions for long quotes set off by indented paragraphs.

One last very important point. Your transcription isn't finished until you add a citation to the original source. Anyone who reads your work should be able to use your documentation to easily locate the original in case they ever want to make a comparison. Your citation should also include the date the transcription was made, and your name as the transcriber.