Ten Tips and Reasons to Transcribe Documents 14

One skill every serious family history researcher needs is to be able to completely and accurately transcribe handwritten documents. Yes, it can be a royal pain when the ink is faded or the handwriting is nearly impossible to read. Here are ten tips and reasons for gutting it out and developing this essential skill. Pssst! There’s a bonus tip at the end. So hang in there!


Why Transcribe:

  • To be able to read the document at a later time. Who wants to struggle through hard to read handwriting over and over?
  • The act of transcribing causes you to notice the details.
  • When you notice those details, it’s easier to come up with a good research plan.
  • It helps in analyzing the document.
  • Some repositories don’t allow photocopies, photographs or scans. The only way to leave with a “copy” of the document is to transcribe it.



  • Make an exact copy
  • The lines in your transcription should break in the exact same place as on the original.
  • Spelling (or misspelling), punctuation, capitalizations (or lack thereof) should appear exactly as in the original document.
  • Notations of your own should be in square brackets [] or footnotes. If a word or words are undecipherable, note it with comments like [unreadable] or [?].
  • Number the lines. It will help you locate a specific line if you need to refer back.
  • Write a full citation including the repository. Consider including this information, as well as #5 below in the metadata of your file.
  • Include your name and date of the transcription. It could be helpful when reviewing later on. Especially if your skills have vastly improved.


Bonus Tip:

I use a free program called Transcript when transcribing digital documents. The document can be opened in the top half of the screen while you make your transcription in the bottom half. You can zoom in on those difficult to read words which helps make an accurate transcription. Transcript has made my life immensely easier.


What tips and tricks for transcribing do you have? Is there a particular software program you like to use? Let us know in the comments.


© Michelle Goodrum 2012

Michelle Goodrum is the author of Timeless Territories, IDG's monthly column about using land records in your research. You can find her blogging at The Turning of Generations.

Michelle Goodrum

About Michelle Goodrum

Writer, family historian, and researcher Michelle Roos Goodrum has been researching her family for over 20 years. Being the caretaker of over 135 years of her family’s papers and photographs, Michelle enjoys piecing her ancestors’ stories together. Michelle is also a Teaching Assistant for Boston University's Genealogical Research Program. Follow Michelle on her blog The Turning of Generations (http://turning-of-generations.blogspot.com/ ) Michelle is the author of IDG’s monthly column, Timeless Territories.

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