- Newsletter of the BCG
Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Transcribing Source
Materials," OnBoard 2 (January 1996): 8.
Many words have different meanings in various fields -
even diametrically opposed meanings. Transcription
is one of those words. To the musician, a transcription
is an arrangement or adaptation that reflects
the transcriber's originality. To a serious genealogist,
that concept is an anathema.
When applied to historical documentation the word transcript
means an exact copy. Those three words are crucial.
That definition is unyielding. When a document - be it recorded
on parchment, granite, or film - is transcribed, the result
must be an exact copy.
The task is not hard - it's nitpicking. Assuming that the
researcher is familiar with the penmanship and that the
original is legible, the only challenge is to learn a few
fundamental rules that center upon six elements:
Never should we rearrange the detail we are copying. It
is true, every rule has its exception; but this is one that
skilled transcribers rarely break.
The original arrangement often embodies clues that knowledgeable
researchers can develop into significant evidence. A collection
of records is best left in its original sequence - as are
names on a list or entries on a page. Inscribed tombstones
should be recorded in physical sequence. Alphabetizing inscriptions
or entries "so readers can easily find their ancestor" is
the surest way to sacrifice evidence upon the altar of good
If a testator writes: "I bequeath to my nephews Joseph
Leonard and Thomas Jones," is he referring to two nephews
or three? Adding punctuation to a document, even when it
badly needs it, can totally alter the meaning of the original
A witness signs his name as Jas. Smith - or is
it Jos.? It must be James, we conclude. The
family had a James, but no known Joseph. Should
we write out the name in full, so readers can benefit from
our knowledge of the family? No. There may indeed
be a Joseph yet unknown to us. Leaving the name in its original,
abbreviated form lets the reader know that alternatives
exist. If we arbitrarily choose one option and substitute
a full spelling, our readers are misled into thinking that
the document itself presents that name in full. The appropriate
treatment in such a case would be to render the name as
"Jas. [Jos.?] Smith."
Similarly, clues to the identities of individuals often
lurk in the form of the signature. The William Smith who
signs as Will. Smith is usually a different man than
the one who signs as Wm. Smith. John Brown who makes
his mark as X is usually not the one who crudely
scrawls something that resembles JB. As transcribers,
we are obliged to faithfully preserve each man's effort
to identify himself distinctively.
Capitalization and Spelling
As with punctuation and abbreviations, capitalization
and spelling should also be rendered exactly as the original
presents them. Quirky misspellings and grammatical "errors"
can also help to distinguish between people, places, objects,
Transcribers face a frequent need or temptation to insert
detail not in the document itself. Some words are illegible,
and we feel we must offer alternate readings. Other points
need clarifying to make a document intelligible. Fine -
if one basic rule is followed.
We can add whatever we feel is absolutely necessary
- so long as we place our offering in square brackets.
Not parentheses, but [ ]. (A case at point would be the
questioned reading of Jas or Jos. Smith.)
Original writers use parentheses. If we, as transcribers,
place parentheses around our additions, then readers have
no way to discern whether this parenthetical data appears
within the original or whether it represents our additives
As with all other aspects of research, the material we
transcribe must be documented so thoroughly that our readers
can easily locate the original. If documentation is lacking
on the record we are using, then we must offer a viable
explanation of the document's provenance. What do we know
of its creation? Where did we find it? Where can a copy
be obtained by others?
Six "small" matters. Six nitpicking points to remember.
Yet observing them means all the difference between a quality
effort and a questionable one.
Of course quality is our goal. Helping others is our commitment.
How fortunate it is that such an important area of research
is one so easy to master.
Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
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