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Helen F.M. Leary, CG, CGL, “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 left.
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 purpose.
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 for Joseph.)
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 its interpretation.)
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 and lift.
- 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 ror 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
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.