I was recently helping a friend who had reached a brick wall in her genealogy research. As we reviewed her research, I noticed that she had numerous copies of wills and deeds. When I asked for the transcriptions of the documents, she told me that she had not transcribed any of them.
In genealogy, a transcription is an exact copy of a record. That means that everything is exactly as it is the original–spelling, punctuation, abbreviations and format. A transcription is often confused with an abstract, which is a summary of the important points in a document, and an extract, which is an exact copy of selected parts of a document.
When I started researching my genealogy, many of the genealogy documents could not be copied on a photocopying machine because they were too large or too fragile. That meant that I had to rely on transcribing those records.
Transcribing has become less common with the availability of photocopies and digital copies of documents. Many researchers, like my friend, think that it is not necessary to transcribe their genealogy documents because they have a copy. This is not true.
Why transcribe a record? Transcribing is the foundation of a thorough and accurate analysis. Transcribing a document furthers your understanding of that document and its purpose. When transcribing, you will catch those little details that can go undetected when just reading a document. It is harder to miss something when writing it down.
In the course of research it is usually necessary to refer back to a document many times. Often you will not look at a document for months or years . Because old documents are typically very hard to read, this can be very time consuming. If the document has been transcribed, it makes reading that document easier and saves time.
Deeds, wills, probates and pension files are just a few of the types of documents that should be transcribed. Before beginning the transcription, read the document several times. Reading will give a general sense of the document. Usually the handwriting, unfamiliar words and light lettering will become clearer after several readings.
Start the transcription with a citation. Next record your name, address and date the transcription was made. It is likely that the document will have misspellings and abbreviations. Turn off the spell check feature on the word processor. Otherwise it will correct the spelling automatically, making it very difficult to make an exact word for word copy.
Documents typically have a lot of tedious repetition and boilerplate. It is tempting to skip over or quickly run through this material. Copy these parts just as carefully as the other parts of the document. The chances are greater that the filled-in answers will be misinterpreted when you do not know what the boilerplate questions were.
Check your work; accuracy is very important. Everyone makes mistakes, but they occur more often when the document is long and repetitious. After completing a transcription, set it aside for a few days, then go back and proofread it once, twice or even three times.
For more guidance on how to transcribe, go to The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual; Chapter 16 of Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians, Elizabeth Shown Mills, editor; and the National Genealogical Society's online course, "Transcribing, Extracting, and Abstracting Genealogical Records" (www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/transcribing).
Transcribing is an acquired skill that takes practice. I have transcribed more records than I care to count. It is a skill that has helped me solve many genealogical problems over the years and has proved to be well worth the time and effort I have put into learning how to do it proficiently.