Anders Family
David Asbel Anders with
Jim and Tina Smith Anders

US GenWeb Project

Rufus and Florence Hall Owen Family in 1947
Rufus and Florence Hall Owen and children

US GenWeb Archives Project


Transylvania County, NC 

GenWeb Project

NC GenWeb


Creating Quality Transcriptions

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The idea seems simple enough.  There are words on one object.  Someone just copies those words on another object.  In practice - it never really works out that way.  There are many reasons for this.  Some are preventable.  Some are not.  But they all should be considered when creating and using transcriptions.  Poor transcriptions can result in years of wasted research time following an unacceptable number of errors.  These unreliable transcriptions become mere indexes for locating additional information, if it still exists.  But the person who takes the time to provide a quality transcription of a document will always find an appreciative audience while providing a valuable research resource.  When beginning a transcription project, there are a few basic issues to keep in mind to make the result as helpful as possible.

Readers are not Psychic

The transcribed version will never look exactly like the original.  The transcriber often knows more about the document than is on the paper.  The reader may want to see the original to double check a questionable character or see what kind of paper was used.  A brief description of the document and transcription methods provides this information.  It should include:

  • Basic description of the document.  Purists will include measurements.  Probably more important are notes about its condition and legibility.  
  • Location of the original document with as much detail as possible.  If the document is located in an archives the accession number or name should be included.  The archivist can help provide this.  If it is in someone's personal possession, provide a name and address.   
  • Description of transcription methods.  A note that "original spelling and syntax retained" will let readers know that you really do know how to spell and further more that you are familiar with proper transcription techniques.  Also describe methods used to designate additional  information provided by the transcriber.
  • Additional information about the historical context of the document.  If it is undated, do you know an approximate date?  How do you know?  If it is a store ledger, where was the store?  Information about the creator of the original document should also be included.
  • The transcriber and the date of the transcription.

Illegible Originals

This happens frequently.  Handwriting styles change.  Penmanship and education vary greatly.  Documents become damaged with ink spills, mold, and critter nibbling sessions.  The ability to read the older handwriting styles improves with experience.  There isn't much anyone can do about the other factors.  When in doubt, a questionable character is normally underlined or otherwise designated in the transcription to let readers know it may not be correct.  If a character is completely illegible, transcribers can leave an underscore in its place or an editorial comment in parenthesis such as (hole in page).  

School Teacher Approach

Spell check programs and the Microsoft interpretation of English grammar are very new.  Standardization of these subjects is also relatively new.  Older approaches of spelling words phonetically and working out grammar with a somewhat minimalist approach to punctuation and conjugation were quite acceptable in the past.  It is unfair to judge earlier authors by current standards.  In addition, individual quirks and variations provide important information about speech patterns and education opportunities.  The best way to announce to the world that a transcription has reliability problems is to include a note to the effect of "The spelling errors have been corrected."  Perhaps worse, is "correcting" the non-standard spellings without warning anyone.  There is a transitional approach of maintaining the original but inserting (sic) after every instance of non-standard usage.  This will annoy the daylights out of readers since it can result in several interruptions per sentence in some cases.  Just leave it as is and move on.

Correcting History

At times, documents contain errors.  Researchers often will have encountered additional sources that reveal these errors, or at least some discrepancies.  Often there is a temptation to simply fix the information from the original document by replacing it with a corrected version in the transcription.  The focus needs to remain on the document and not the additional information.  Errors and discrepancies may have entered into previous research, and it is important to know the source of these mistakes.  More importantly, there are often interesting details behind the scenes of these errors and discrepancies.  Retaining them provides a red flag to find out more.  Readers should always remember that even original documents can contain errors and be prepared for these inevitable bumps in the research road.  If you do have additional information that demonstrates an error or discrepancy, a footnote with sources will alert future researchers and provide far more information than simply replacing the original text.

A similar problem comes in adding information.  Maiden names of women, missing dates, and other such details are often known to a transcriber.  Providing this information is helpful to researchers.  But knowing that the original author of the document did not have that available, or did not choose to include it, is also important.  These small additions, as well as other editorial comments should be designated through use of parenthesis or other clear markings with an explanation included in the description.  Footnotes with further explanations and sources for these additions will also be greatly appreciated.  Helpful additions also include footnotes identifying people, places and events mentioned in a document.

Transcribers are human, too

The creators of the original documents made mistakes.  All transcribers will, as well.  Transcribers should make all attempts possible to reduce the number of errors.  Primarily, this involves following the guidelines above.  But it also involves the recognition that transcriptions take time.  Compare difficult characters with other known words in the document.  Stop for awhile when eyes get tired - and they will with large projects.  Once a transcription is complete, double check everything.  It is helpful to have someone else look over it was well.  Individuals with a great deal of valuable knowledge about a document but very poor eyesight should work with some stronger eyes in the actual transcription process.  But ultimately, acknowledge the human element.  An acceptable level of errors varies by document.  A good rule of thumb is that the transcriber should add fewer errors than the original document.  Users should always cite the source as the transcription and not the original document to account for this added human element.  And they should use the original document whenever possible.

Good transcriptions will help many future researchers.  But ultimately, the transcriber benefits the most.  This is a way to really get to know a document and better understand the people mentioned within it.  And the transcription becomes an easier to read version for late nights of research the transcriber will turn to again and again.

 - Linda Hoxit Raxter, 02 FEB 2003

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