Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Art of Transcription: A Practical Guide

Let's play a game of truth or folly...


You schedule a research appointment at your local library. When you arrive, you are handed a large packet of information about your topic, transcriptions of every manuscript you wish to research, and a full description of the potential resources you may want to study.



The Hollywood research stylings of shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and History Detectives may have introduced the world to the archivist and the special collections repository, but they also speed up and enhance the research process to a misleading degree. As an archivist, I can tell you with certainty that historical manuscripts do not often arrive with background information and they are definitely not transcribed. In fact, often the first mystery a researcher encounters is simply a question of content (i.e. what does the document say?)

Do not fret, you are equipped with paleography decoding skills! Now let’s take a closer look at the transcription process. 

The goal of transcription is to accurately represent the text of a manuscript so it may be studied or quoted in scholarly research. In the research context, the most commonly utilized transcription type is semi-diplomatic transcription—this is just a fancy way of saying the representation of the text will be accurate, honoring the original spelling, punctuation (including insertions and strike throughs), and line spacing without modernizing the language or manuscript format. Because most contemporary transcriptions are accompanied by a digital image of the artifact itself, a diplomatic transcription, complete with detailed manual renderings such as blots, false starts, and letter size (i.e. a full artistic depiction) is typically unnecessary. A semi-diplomatic transcription provides a fluent and clean rendering of a manuscript’s text, and is ideally accompanied by a facsimile or reference image of the same artifact.

So where to begin?

1. utilizing a photocopy of the manuscript , number each line


2. prep your notepaper or word processing document with the same number of lines as your manuscript

Keeping your transcription lines aligned with the original manuscript spacing is the key to a successful textual representation of a document. It will also make it easier to transcribe bit by bit without losing your place.


3. represent each identifiable character as it is written 

Any illegible characters should be represented with a ? placeholder in brackets, like: wel[??]lovid. Use a ? for each unidentifiable character (e.g. two unidentifiable letters would be represented [??] ). Note how our transcriptionist has represented the 1576 Queen Elizabeth I below.

Noticing anything missing? ... like some of the words ...

Deciphering handwriting, in this case English secretary hand, isn't always easy. In fact, it may take multiple attempts to interpret sources, and sometimes even after much deliberation we have gaps in our transcription. 

So what do we know?

The document is an order granting permission for 40,000 pounds of bullion to be imported into England. It was written in secretary hand, possibly by a scribe or court secretary. The document was signed in the upper left corner by Queen Elizabeth I, who used an Italic hand.

These clues are the first steps toward historical interpretation.   We can take this information and formulate questions, research primary and secondary sources, and uncover more of the story this manuscript has to tell. We owe these insights to our patient and careful transcription! 


More Primary Source Investigation Practice:

Step One: Observation <<<

Step Two: Interrogation <<<

Step Three: Interpretation <<<


  • Quills, Paper, and Ink
  • Understanding Regnal Years
  • Preservation 101: How Light and Humidity Impact Paper
  • The Cursive Learning Curve & Future Historians' Dilemma

*Special thanks to transcriptionist and Morristown NHP volunteer researcher, Cynthia N.


  1. This is very interesting. I will have to make improvements to my transcriptions. Thank you.

  2. This was really interesting. I have tounched upon the same topic on my blog in relation to Norwegian genealogy http://martinroe.com/blog/index.php/category/norwegian-genealogy/gothic-handwriting/

  3. Fascinating. This is the first time I have ever been told how to transcribe. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for this very useful tutorial. I work with a lot of older documents with my genealogical and historical work. Sometimes it is a challenge and having a system is great to help keep the research moving.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this informative stuff, it will help fo every national citizen

  6. thank you so very much ..... your procedure will be quite useful