Unpublished: Transcribing for Research & Publication

One of the joys (and disadvantages) of working with unpublished primary sources is that they are time consuming. Life consuming, if not handled with care.

Later, in the blog series, I’ll share about a couple of unpublished diaries, but since transcribing unpublished sources has been taking up most of my spare writing time this week, I thought it might add an interesting layer to the series to describe the process.

This week it’s been a folder of 1850’s letters on my transcribing list. No, I don’t actually own the originals, but I was able to handle and photograph the originals earlier this spring. Here’s my process:

  1. Photograph the originals (already done)
  2. Organize the photographs into folders for easier reference later (already done)
  3. Read and choose what to transcribe. Is it just a few sentences here and there or the whole source? (This week I wanted the entire letters.)
  4. Take photographs of photographs if needed (This sounds silly, but I pull up the photo on my large computer screen and take a photo of it with my phone. Then I can transcribe on the commuter train or anywhere. In an ideal research world, two screens would be great – one for viewing and one for typing/transcribing, but I’m not always at home to make that possible.)
  5. Begin transcribing process and make any relevant notes in the new document (I need to decide if I’m going to follow the original lines of the letter or just break where the writer made paragraphs. I note this in the document, and also take a look at the original punctuation. Will I need to add punctuation in the brackets at this time or later?)
  6. Start reading and typing, adding relevant document notes along the way
  7. Save file regularly
  8. Use phone (or other screen) to zoom in on the inked or penciled lines. Even on the rare occasions that I’m transcribing from an actual document, I’ll sometimes photograph it just to be able to enlarge the text and read it more easily.
  9. Make notes along the way relevant to the document. I always add when the new page starts in the historic document. If I notice any significant change in penmanship style, if the lines change from ink to pencil, or other little details that could end up being clues for context.
  10. When finished, proof my transcription – looking for my typos or details that need to be checked against the photo of the original.

I got lucky this week. These 1850’s writers had wonderful, fairly-easy-to-read penmanship. They also wrote with pretty good sentence structure so most of it was easy to follow and transcribe. In “nightmare” sources, I’ll often end up with a lot of brackets like this [two unreadable words] which signals I might want to come back and play detective or it truly is unreadable. Sometimes, I’ll end up with a lot of [word] brackets when I first start working with a writer’s documents and then as my eyes “adjust” to their penmanship and see how they shaped their letters and characters I’ll be able to go back and review and fill in those words.

Last week I experimented with a voice to text tool to see if it was quicker to read aloud the primary source than to type it. While I like the concept, it wasn’t very helpful in my situation, and I ended up spending more time to go back to fix a lot of punctuation and other details. Some of that might be user error, and some of it might have been the program’s quirks, but for now, I’m having better success and accuracy with the read and type method.

Do you have other tips or tricks for transcribing and working with unpublished sources? For now, I’m off to go keep transcribing so I can finish a manuscript someday soon!

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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7 Responses to Unpublished: Transcribing for Research & Publication

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    I feel your pain!

  2. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Good thoughts. I find dictation is a good way to do typescripts or letters with clear writing – it doesn’t work well with diaries. You’re right, though, it requires careful editing and checking afterward.

  3. John Foskett says:

    “These 1850’s writers had wonderful, fairly-easy-to-read penmanship.”

    Sarah: You might condition that if you’ve ever seen Emory Upton’s papers. The USN might never have ever figured out the Midway operation if the IJN had only been able to hire Emory to hand write Yamamoto’s orders. 🙂

  4. It’s always a relief when the original author of a piece had good penmanship. When they didn’t and I have to put in a lot of those [ ], I find it sometimes helps to either take a break from the piece and come back after a few hours or a day to reassess any guesses as to what the word may be. Other times, the further along I get in a piece, I’ll see a legible word that looks really similar to that word I couldn’t guess and it ends up matching in context. Transcribing is definitely a good skill to have in the historian’s toolbox.

  5. Brian Swartz says:

    When a word or several words within a sentence defy transcription, I read aloud the transcribed words either side of the troublesome word(s). Doing so may lead to an “ah, ha!” moment.
    Or I may ask my wife, a lifelong nurse who has transcribed many a doctor’s execrable handwriting, to translate the troublesome word(s). She usually gets the word with one scan of her eyes!

  6. Henry Fleming says:

    Not a professional here. I’ve used transcribing to a spreadsheet. It doesn’t always work this way but in column A is my transcription (or if a diary col A gets the date and col B the transcription). Column C are people or events referenced, Col D are my observations, and so on.

  7. mark harnitchek says:

    Get a large lighted magnifying glass … this was enormously helpful transcribing the Lyman C. Draper manuscripts and the Reverend John Shane interviews of settlers in frontier Kentucky … thankfully, both men had somewhat decent handwriting, but they wrote incrediblity small in an effort to fill every white space on the paper … the magnifying glass was essential in simply being able to see what i needed to transcribe … it was a little weird, at first, trying to read through the magnifying glass … but once my brain and eyes adjusted and i got the hang of Draper and Shane’s mid-19th century penmanship, i was cooking with gas.

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