I love consulting historical documents and various reference materials to research my family history, breakthrough genealogy brick walls, and write ancestral stories along the way.
During a Write With Me on Facebook, a viewer asked me to discuss how I transcribe resources online to incorporate them into my research plans and family history stories.
Let's first explore why transcribing is important and some tips for transcribing. Then my video tutorial will walk you through the process of turning digitized historical records into usable text for your projects.
What is a Genealogy Transcription?
To ensure we're using the correct terminology, let's discuss a few terms associated with genealogy research work.
Transcriptions are exact word-for-word copies of the text as it appears in a piece of genealogical evidence.
This contrasts with abstracts that summarize or highlights key points in the resource.
Translations convert a transcription into another language than recorded on the original record.
Extraction pulls only relationship and event data to enter into a searchable database. This is connected with indexing records.
I have used each method of capturing the essence of my genealogy records as I climb my family tree. I admit that I do most transcriptions when preparing a formal genealogy research report or extracting segments of a larger document to incorporate into my family stories.
As shown in my Write With Me Facebook live, I often transcribe a few items, revamp the wording, and add them to my stories.
Why is Transcribing Important?
While I can tell you that transcribing helps me tell better stories and become a better researcher, you might prefer to hear some genealogy experts' thoughts.
The United States National Archives suggests that "by transcribing documents, you can help us unlock history and discover hidden aspects of records and the stories they contain."
According to Lisa Lisson, "Incorrectly transcribing a record can lead to incorrect conclusions or missed information/clues about our ancestors."
Tips for Transcribing Historical Records
While there are full courses that can teach you how to transcribe documents to a professional genealogist's standard, let me offer you a few quick tips to help with your research.
Type What You See
Write the words exactly as they appear in the document.
Yes. Your ancestors and hired scribes used grammatical practices that would make you cringed. (Meanwhile, I'm loving the mistakes since I make them all the time.)
Turn off your modern grammar editor mind. Type the capitalization, misspelled words, abbreviations, and punctuation as you see it on the documents.
You can add a tag for the corrected spellings of names, places, or events AFTER you make a true and accurate transcription.
Compare Writing Samples
If you're struggling to read old handwriting, gather several writing samples from the same penman. Some words may seem illegible in one document but quite understandable in a similar record.
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Learn the Nuances of the Language
As I started researching my family tree, words like Befsie and Mifsifsippi baffles me. Do you recognize what's happening?
In early American documents, words with a double 's' would have two 'fs' in their place. When transcribing the document, you would write Befsie. You can then add a bracket that inserts the modern spelling [Bessie].
Many scribes use umlauts and other unique symbols and customs. Be sure you understand the intricacies of the language you're transcribing so that you don't misinterpret what is written.
Skip and Come Back
For words that you struggle with, add  to indicate a word appears there. Finish an initial transcription of the document.
Set the document aside for at least an hour or so. Return to the document and look at the bracketed spaces. Try to decipher the words through the comparison mentioned above or context clues.
If the word still is difficult to interpret, use the word illegible between the brackets, like so [illegible.]
Do Small Segments at a Time
Don't try to transcribe a lengthy document all at once. Type up short segments. Then save your work. Look away from your screen for at least 20 seconds or longer every 20 minutes, then try another section.
For more training on transcribing documents in your genealogy research, check out my colleague's blog posts:
Abstracting & Transcribing Genealogical Documents by Kimberly Powell.
Transcribing Genealogy Records Correctly Helps Find New Clues by Amie Bowser Tennant
Transcribing, Extracting, and Abstracting Genealogical Documents a course through NGS
If you enjoy transcribing, the US National Archives is seeking volunteers to transcription millions of historical documents. Learn more here, Citizen Archivist Missions.
Watch this video.
Use Notepad to Transcribe Online Genealogy Resources
Whether a document is typed or handwritten, I will use Notepad on Windows to create a text version of the resources I consult.
(Apparently, the alternative to Notepad for Windows users is TextEdit. Please let me know if that is incorrect.)
Follow these steps:
Open the genealogical document or resource you want to transcribe.
Ensure that the document is in full screen and you have zoomed in.
Open the Notepad program on Windows.
Overlay Notepad on the document window.
While I have three monitors, I still use the same process that I developed when I only had one.
I arrange the notepad program over the document window so that Notepad serves as a 'ruler' for the most difficult text that I'm reading. If the text is easier to read, I arrange the Notepad window to view the document above the window where I'll type.
Then I just type and move the document and scroll Notepad when I need to read another section.
Frugal Genealogy Tool Tip: While there are plenty of other programs available for transcribing, I'm a fan of free for this task. Then I'll pay for Grammarly to help correct the errors I make while typing. I do pay for that service because it has more purposes than just transcribing.
Related Genealogy Articles
While I don't offer additional blog posts about transcribing records, you might like the following research and writing tips.