Converting Records into Reliable Copies
- Newsletter of the BCG
Helen F.M. Leary, "Converting Records into
Reliable Copies," OnBoard 5 (May 1999): 20.
Most documents we uncover are written in someone else’s
handwriting.We must be able to read them to discover
whether they contain information useful to our research.
Once we read a document and find it relevant, we must transform
it into a reliable research note.
READING HANDWRITTEN RECORDS
The ease or difficulty of the first step depends upon
the skill and care exercised by the scribe—and our
own skill and care in deciphering it. We can do nothing
now to change the writing habits of that ancient scribe,
but we can do much to improve our ability to read what he
Broadening Our Focus
Studying the specific passage of interest in the context
of the entire page or series of pages teaches us how the
scribe formed his or her letters and linked them together
in words. For example:
- If the writer often left a and d
unclosed, we will recognize that what looks like John
Adams is our old friend John Ailums.
- Comparing letterforms in words that can only be themselves—such
as my, therefore, and pass—produces
an alphabet for the remaining text. The a and
L in the heading Tax List would help
us distinguish between Samuel and Lemuel
on the roll itself. Such common legal phrases as “Signed,
Sealed, and Delivered” in wills or “bargain,
sell, enfeoff, and assign” in deeds also serve this
Studying authoritative writings on obsolete letterforms
is essential. Several good guides are widely marketed by
publishers and book dealers in our field.
Simply reading records—lots of them, regardless
of whether they pertain to our ancestors—greatly enhances
our recognition of scribal styles and habits. Applying the
ever-aplicable genealogical maxim Begin with what you
know and work from there to what you do not know means
we begin with handwriting whose forms are predominantly
modern and gradually work back to ancient materials.
This standard is simple: we maintain the integrity
of the document and we accurately cite its source.
Applying the first part of this standard is more complex
than it would appear. Consequently, it has several corollaries:
WE DO NOT CORRECT, MODERNIZE, OR STANDARDIZE THE WRITER’S
SPELLING, PUNCTUATION, CAPITALIZATION, OR DATING METHOD.
Our transcript represents what the writer wrote, not what
we think he meant to say. If the text reads “Jo. peat
and his Brother jjames road in the waggon to markit,”
that is how we transcribe it. We do not “correct”
spellings. We do not assume that Jo. was meant
to be John and write John in our transcript.
Doing so may assign “jaames” a brother he did
not have. (Jo. more commonly was an abbreviation
WHEN WE ADD ANYTHING TO THE TEXT, WE PLACE THE ADDITION
IN SQUARE BRACKETS.
Our transcript clearly distinguishes the writer’s
text from our own. If, let us say, Mary’s will left
“won mayer creechur” to her daughter, we might
want to clarify the transcript by inserting “one mare
creature.” We cannot change Mary’s
words, but we can maintain the record’s integrity
by placing the insertion in brackets. (On the other hand,
we should take care not to burden the transcript with a
blizzard of insertions that distract from the text or color
WE TRANSCRIBE OBSOLETE LETTER FORMS (OR CONTEMPORARY
ONES FOR WHICH WE HAVE NO KEYBOARD EQUIVALENT) AS THEMSELVES—NOT
AS SOME LOOK-ALIKE.
Our transcript is a rendition of what the writer wrote—not
what it looks like he wrote. If “looks like”
is what we want, we should photocopy—not transcribe.
The limited capability of typewriters and early computers
encouraged typesetters to substitute letterforms that gave
the “flavor” of the original. As technological
tools improve and we become more versed in penmanship, our
transcribing skills should stay abreast. Thus, we note:
- The tailed or long s is not an f.
We transcribe Joseph and list, not Jofeph
- The double-s is not a p. Jesse
is not Jepe.
- The open or backwards e is not a badly closed
o. We write there and Negro,
not thoro and Nogro.
- The capital ff is not a double-f.
Writing ffoster instead of Foster throws
the name to the wrong place in any index.
- The thorn (þ or Þ) is th not y.
Once dropped in English, it was seldom sold in movable
type, so printers used a look-alike. We shouldn’t.
Accurate transcriptions of this letter (which bore characteristics
of both p and y) would read the,
not ye; and Sath r or Sather,
not Say r or Sayer.
- The symbol still used for per in such mercantile
entries as “10 lbs. at $5 per lb.”
looks like an encircled P (just as @ is a form for at).
We transcribe the circled p as per.
When seen in such words as percent, it is not
Pcent or P[er]cent.
- A lower-case c with a horizontal bar above
it was a form for the sh sound that is more-commonly
represented by ti. We write, for example, execution
and caution, not execucon and caucon.
Quality notetaking requires accuracy, attention to detail,
and faithfulness to the meaning of the scribe. If we alter
or substitute, we risk distorting our evidence.
Helen F. M. Leary, CG, CGL
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