General Guidelines for Reading Historic Documents
When first learning to read and transcribe historic documents, begin with 19th century documents, and work backward to the colonial period. This way, you will become familiar with early handwriting, spelling, abbreviations, and common salutations.
Other guidelines include:
- Have a good quality magnifying glass at hand for difficult letters or symbols.
- Have a subject specific dictionary at hand to identify historical terms or phrases.
- Have a list of historical abbreviations at hand to identify common title, name, and date abbreviaitons.
- Begin by reading the document through at a fast pace, then re-read at a slow pace, examining each word.
- Compare unknown letters or words with similar words on the same page and/or in the same document.
- Be aware of spelling variations, especially in pre-Civil War era documents. In colonial America, words were often spelled phonetically - often in local accents.
General Rules for Transcribing Historic Documents
When transcribing documents, include all original abbreviations, cancellations, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling.
Technical rules include:
- Use three ellipses points . . . to indicate the omission of words due to paper loss or stains.
- Use a question mark in brackets [?] for words or parts of words that are illegible.
- Use the expression sic in brackets [sic] to indicate that a misspelled word has been transcribed exactly as written.
- Transcribe the long s as a regular s. Example: Mafs. is actually Mass.
- Spell out uncommon abbreviations in brackets. Example: Indian affs. [Affairs]
- Include appropriate footnotes with background or biographical information.
- Include a citation for the original document at the bottom of your transcription.
Other Useful Sources on Transcribing Documents
UK National Archives Paleaography Tutorial
Extremely informative and fun web tutorial that will help you learn to read and transcribe English documents written between 1500 and 1800.
Practice documents include wills, petitions, estate inventories, and unusual material such as a "Recipe for mince pies (Early 17th century)."
From the National Archives (Surrey, United Kingdom) in partnership with University College London.
Palaeography Tutorial - The Ducking Stool Game
Test your paleaology skills and save the accused woman from her watery punishment!
US National Archives - Our Documents Site
This informative site lets you explore 100 milestone documents of American history. Examine high resolution originals, and explore links to full transcriptions and background information.
From the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in partnership with the USA Freedom Corp. and National History Day.
Other "How To's"...
Contact Christopher Raab for further assistance or fill out a
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Last updated: 8/31/05 cmr