|Crochet pattern transcribed by my gran (Mabel Adams, nee Coulson 1910-1991), the crocheted mat I made from the pattern, and the crochet hook used|
For clarity, legibility and accuracy, Gran wrote in upper case, but the abbreviations and terminology would not be meaningful to someone who does not know crochet. Gran's normal cursive (joined up) handwriting was a different style to mine and I remember thinking that some of her letters looked slightly odd.
Learning to read old handwriting, understanding why a document was created and knowing about its subject are key to genealogical source analysis.
Why transcribe?Handwriting recognition is a rapidly developing technology, but it may tempt us to be too lazy to learn about old handwriting. Optical character recognition (OCR) was hailed as the solution for printed text, but the results are often not very accurate, particularly with poor quality print and older fonts. These technologies are useful, but I think the "no more indexing" claim by the runners-up in the RootsTech 2015 Innovator Showdown , ArgusSearch, is misguided.
Apart from making a digital copy, transcribing documents fully makes you examine the details closely, which helps you better understand the contents.
Palaeography LessonsPalaeography (also spelled paleography) is the study of old handwriting. Fortunately there is a range of online tutorials that can help us learn to read scripts used in previous centuries.
The UK National Archives tutorials are an excellent practical introduction, with exercises for you to try. Have some fun with the ducking stool game. Scottish Handwriting.com from the National Records of Scotland offers practical exercises and a weekly poser. English Handwriting 1500-1700 provides a good background information and transcription conventions.
These resources cover the period from 1500 to 1800. For genealogists, learning to read secretary hand, a script widely used for administrative and legal purposes is important.
As handwriting developed from earlier scripts, an understanding of those scripts is helpful. Nottingham University's Medieval Handwriting provides interactive exercises and information on understanding medieval documents. Further early modern and medieval material is available at Palindex. DigiPal is a fabulous resource for very early scripts from Anglo-Saxon and Norman times (1000-1100).
Latin was both an international and legal language. In England it was used in legal documents up to 1733. Legal Latin is often heavily abbreviated which makes deciphering it a challenge. A knowledge of the law at the time the document was written is greatly helpful. Fortunately, legal documents tend to follow a pattern, which helps us predict what it might contain. Once again the UK National Archives has good introduction to Latin, and Latin Palaeography. Whittaker's Words is an online Latin dictionary.
Decoding the script and abbreviations, and knowing what to expect are all pre-requisites for a quality transcript, just like the crochet pattern needed knowledge and skill to produce a finished article.
Many of the resources listed here include interactive practice. Practice really does make perfect transcriptions.
Transcription ToolsArmed with knowledge gained from the resources above, you are ready to start transcribing. For access reasons, it is common for genealogists to work from a digital image or a photocopy of the original manuscript. Enlargement and zooming in on detail is an advantage of a good quality digital image. A large screen or two screens can help make the image and transcript easier to see and read. Before you rush to buy a second screen, check the ports on your computer and TV. I connect to my TV using a HDMI cable. You can use image program like Irfanview or Photoshop to manipulate images and a word processor, such as Word. Some people find manipulating two programs in different windows clumsy.
Transcript 2.5 puts the image and transcript in a single window and provides basic image manipulation and text formatting tools. Some people find it suits them very well, but I did not find it much easier to use. Try both approaches and find what suits you. For me, the deal breaker is that the formatting is not completely compatible with Word.
A plain or formatted text transcript is a good start, but I want a more sophisticated transcription tool:
- Annotations note layout, corrections, obscured text and non-text parts of the manuscript.
- Semantic mark-up, tags that tell the computer what the text means, enable further analysis.
- Support for non-standard characters, such as the thorn and yogh that appear in 1700s manuscripts.
A more detailed explanation of why I want these features is explained in the worked example of a property document.
|T-PEN transcription interface|
T-PEN, Transcription for Palaeographical and Editorial Notation is an academic project intended for digital humanities scholars. The web based tool includes image analysis functions that highlight lines of text. The user-friendly interface presents each line of text for transcription. Annotations, special characters and XML encoding are supported. XML encoding is an exciting feature because it offers the potential of semantic mark-up. This is the kind of transcription tool I would like to see developed and adapted for genealogy.