From OnBoard - 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 intent.


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 scribe.


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, and intents.


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 while transcribing.


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, BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.