2. Reading, Transcribing and Abstracting: Resources for Learning.

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Transcribing documents is an almost last art among most genealoists. What with photocopy machines,microfilm reader printers, scanners, digital cameras and the whole attitude of instant genealogy on the web, the skill of transcribing is largely in the domain of the seasoned professional researcher. To bad for the web-based genealogists who never face this task. They may never know the true thrill of the hunt. What resources are there for teachers?

There is an excellant set of guidelines found at the Board for Certification of Genealogists website.
The BCG will allow teachers to make copies of this document for classroom use, but the source must be acknowledged. The article,"Transcribing Source Materials" by Elizabeth Shown Mills originally appeared in the BCG newsletter, OnBoard in June 1996 on page 8.
One of Ms Mills comments is that the transcription should appear in the same layout as the original. The same words on the same line in the same relative position.

After studying  paleography until  can read writing from any era, students  need practice in doing the task, that is transcribing the document as they find it. This requires lots of practice because the point I mentioned from Ms Mills –transcriptions need to be laid out like the original documents– is slow to sink into learners' heads. As a teacher I would assign several practice exercises, discuss them in class, compared with model transcriptions, then test and retest.

One way to retest is error recognition. With a clear image of an original document, and a less-than-perfect transcript (save a few from past classes or create your own!) . Ask the students to pick that transcript apart. Next, provide an image of a document they need to transcribe and you pick it apart in marking. Do this with documents from each era, each handwriting style. Lots of practice and lots of feedback.

The difference between being able to read old handwriting and transcribing old documents is transcription extends paleography in to a reproduction of form and content– each carries meaning.

Your comments on other resources for transcription are most welcome.


5 responses to “2. Reading, Transcribing and Abstracting: Resources for Learning.

  1. Ken,

    I’m still doing it the old fashioned way…cranking the microfilm reader, getting the best copy I can, comparing the copy to the film image, transcribing it into my Notes. I’ve done maybe 15 wills from the 1680 to 1730 time frame in New England in the last two months. I like to transcribe them rather than abstract them in order to understand the language.

    I’ve taken the online Paleography tutorial and it was very good, I thought. I can read the colonial New England script (can’t remember the exact term for it) pretty well, but the Elizabethan and before is really a challenge.

    The major problem now is that the microfilm printer machines are breaking down and not being repaired or replaced. My FHC has the “good” one that does 11 x 17 copies (which I prefer) is broken. That leaves only the 8.5 x 11 machine which is still running. I did about 50 pages sdeveral weeks ago in about 30 minutes. The two computer microfilm readers, that transfer the images to a CD, are much slower – the expert did about 10 images in that 30 minutes. It comes down to time vs. money. 50 images would have taken 150 minutes on the computer reader, but only cost $2, whereas my 30 minute stint cost me $12.50.

    Thanks for the Mills article link – I had it copied before but hadn’t read it recently. I need to improve my transcribing skills, I can see.

    Cheers — Randy

  2. Hello, Ken.

    I am guilty of making transcriptions that
    (a) fit my page or
    (b) are in plain text that can be inserted in my genealogy software (Legacy).

    Censuses are a case in point. How do you get them all on a page, especially the Canadian ones? The detail of the data is wonderful, but thirty to forty columns across the page are just impossible.

    Everybody’s forms 100+ years ago were on incredibly wide books.

    I change columns to rows – on a consistent basis, I hope.

    The online courses have certainly made me aware of the limitations of my preferred practice, and for wills, for example, my transcriptions have been in Microsoft Word, which permits strikethroughs and other formatting niceties.

    What DO people do about censuses, or anything on very wide pages?



  3. Ann,

    For census data, I don’t claim they are transcriptions, only abstracts. That way I can put them in my notes as:

    Isaac Seaver (head of household, white, male, age 77, born Oct 1823, married, for 16 years, born MA, parents born MA/MA, blacksmith, owns home, free of mortgage)

    for a 1900 style US census entry. I prefer this, since I can get it in the shortest possible entry in the notes. If needed, I could always attach an image of the census page so someone could see the actual entry.

    It works for me…and that’s who I need to please!

    An alternative would be to transcribe the data onto one of the census forms, scan the form and attach it to the notes. I prefer my abstract rather than a transcription.

    Cheers — Randy

  4. Aha! Re-define the situation! Works for me.

    Ann Phillips

  5. Sure, why not!

    When it is impossible to do the job the way someone tells you to do it, then do it the best way you can!

    Obviously, if it were a client wanting to see the original data, then a printout of the image is the best way to go, coupled with a transcription on an appropriate form.

    But for your Legacy program notes (your stated problem), it makes no sense to me to transcribe it exactly in columns because the Note editor in most software programs will bollix it up anyway and when you get it MSWord it will be even worse.

    I have this same problem with estate inventories – I try to add spaces in my notes to make the numbers come out in a column, but when it goes over to MSWord the numbers don’t line up. I’ve started putting the numbers in parentheses just so I can make an MSWord table when I edit the document I can cut and paste the number into the table column.

    Cheers — Randy

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