Transcribing Historical Records

From the Family Tree Forum Reference Library

Much of the initial research carried out by family historians relies on transcribed records, generally available on websites or produced in printed or digital format. The vast majority of indexing projects are carried out by commercial enterprises, sometimes in partnership with genealogical societies or archival organisations.

A number of opportunities exist for researchers to give something back to the genealogy community by volunteering to help with the transcription and indexing of such records.

What does transcribing entail

One of the first concerns is how much time one would need to allocate. Most projects are very flexible in what they expect and even one or two hours per week would be acceptable. Obviously the more you can give, the quicker the records can be completed and made available.

Records are made available in a variety of ways, for example as a download from a website or sent as a file by email. Some projects require you to complete a short test piece of transcription which meets their standards before accepting you as a volunteer. You may find you are assigned to a group with someone overseeing the allocation of scanned pages as well as someone to contact in the case of queries. Some projects allow you to choose the type of records you wish to transcribe, and very often categorise whether a project is considered to be at beginner, intermediate or difficult level. Some sites offer incentives should you wish to set yourself targets.

It is advisable to start at beginner level and work your way up to harder projects. Most fledgling transcribers find the first few pages of transcriptions difficult but with practice find they quickly adapt to the style of writing they are reading. The more one does the easier it gets. One gets used to the way different writers form their letters, which can also be helped by searching through the page or pages to find different instances of the same word or letter that may be more easily read. Styles of handwriting change at different times in history and you may find that it is easier to transcribe pages from a certain period of history rather than an earlier period or later period.

Depending on the format of the records being transcribed, you may need to be comfortable manipulating images using a basic graphics program. It sometimes helps to be able to adjust sharpness/brightness/contrast and maybe switch between positive/negative images. The use of two monitors can be beneficial in that you can have an image open on one monitor, with the spreadsheet or database on which to record the transcribed data open on the other.

The golden rule of transcribing is to write what you see. You should not change or extend abbreviations but allow the reader to decide what is meant. Most transcription projects have a code for noting words or letters that could not be read, for example _ or *. You should always follow the project coding to avoid confusion. The task of being a transcriber can be very satisfying and rewarding. However it can also be very lonely and frustrating. At times one may feel a complete idiot, at other times one feels like a genius. All these emotions are the result of the handwriting of a scribe decades and even hundreds of years in the past.

Benefits to you

Volunteering to transcribe historical documents allows you to feel that you are giving something back to the genealogy community. It also helps you to develop your own skills, not only palaeography skills but also the understanding and interpretation of historical documents. As you begin to realise how errors and mistakes can be made in the transcription process, you appreciate the importance of always checking original documents wherever possible even when a transcript has been done.

Exemplar projects

There are various projects to which you can volunteer, a few examples of which are given below:

The FreeUKGEN project, comprising of three sections, aims to provide transcriptions of genealogy resources freely available online.

Online Parish Clerks not only collect and transcribe genealogical information about specific parishes but also answer email enquiries without charge. Many OPCs have ongoing transcription projects - links can be found on their websites:

County or local family history groups and societies often ask for volunteers to transcribe historical documents. You may find that transcribing a parish or area local to your ancestors' origins can be informative and interesting. Just a few examples to give you an idea of the sort of thing available:

Other examples:

Slightly different from transcribing written or printed documents, but still giving something back to the genealogy community, these projects offer a slightly different perspective on volunteering - one that offers both an active and sedentary form of participation.

Getting started

If you are thinking about volunteering you may find it useful to have a friendly face to talk to before leaping in. A number of Family Tree Forum members are involved with transcription projects and have kindly offered to answer questions that any prospective volunteers might have. Click on their username in the table below to send a private message.

Member Transcribes for
AlanC OPC (Lancashire)
AntonyM OPC (Lancashire)
Bubblebelle FreeBMD / Familysearch
Guy Multiple websites, inc. FreeReg, NBI, The Genealogist, UK National Inventory of War Memorials, University databases, plus others.
Jill on the A272 OPC (Sussex)
Katarzyna Familysearch / Ancestry
Mary from Italy Familysearch
PhotoFamily Familysearch
SmallTownGirl Familysearch
WendyPusey FreeREG

Comments from members

We asked the members listed above to give us their comments on what it is like to be a transcriber. As you can see from the selection of comments below it seems to be very a rewarding pastime, with very few negative aspects.

"I've really enjoyed indexing records. Familysearch and its resources have provided so much to me - it was a way of giving back."

"I did some arbitration work on the 1940 - made me much more sympathetic with the arbitrators."

"The amount of time I spend has been very variable depending on how busy I am with other things. Normally I would try and do at least a couple of hours a week. As an example of the amount of work - the last piece I did was a couple of years of baptisms for a large Lancashire parish in the early 1800s - which amounted to almost 2,500 entries. I completed it over about 3 or 4 months. LancsOPC are very understanding and don't mind if you take your time - they don't push you to get it done within a time limit, I'm sure most projects are the same."

"I have just been transcribing part of the 1841 census for the Sussex Online Parish Clerks, who hope to be able to complete the county. So far I've spent about 4 hours over a week but there's no pressure to be quick about it, they prefer you to take your time and be accurate. "

"I've enjoyed "giving something back" as Sussex OPC has been very useful to me and taking a slow "walk" round a village I know in 1841 has increased my knowledge of the area."

"I began some years ago as a way of saying thank you for all the free BMDs I had when compiling my tree and it was helpful to be able to transcribe in an area I knew well."

"The nice thing is that because I am an unpaid volunteer, there is no pressure to complete within a given time."

"There are people with good handwriting and some nightmares to interpret but after a while it gets progressively easier and there is always FTF members more than willing to help".

"FreeBMD offer clear instructions as to what to transcribe with no targets or time constraints. Support offered from group leader."

"If you do not have high speed broadband facilities, at times it can take an age to download scanned documents."

"When transcribing from Familysearch you can choose from a list of projects available at the time, so you can find one that is of more interest to you. Clear instruction is given as to what and how to transcribe. Ability to transcribe offline. When your transcription is arbitrated the arbitrators interpretation of instructions may differ from those your own, so there does not always appear to be consistency."

"I enjoy doing it; there's no pressure and I can take as many or as few batches as I want. Apart from the fact that the transcriptions are obviously going to be useful to somebody, I've learned quite a bit; I'm getting better at deciphering difficult writing and I'm improving my knowledge of really old handwriting (c17). I'm also pleased to be able to give back something to Familysearch, because I've spent many hours at my local LDS centre looking at microfilms at a minimal cost."

"I transcribed for FreeREG for about 2 years, doing some Hampshire marriages and several Leicestershire BMDs. The Leicestershire transcribing was from microfiche that had been photocopied - very hard to read and decipher names."

"I enjoyed transcribing as I felt as if I was giving something back to the community. I had been able to find so much info on my tree because someone had transcribed the records."

"There can’t be many people interested in genealogy, who haven’t at one time or another turned to the FamilySearch (FS) website for information. I’ve been indexing for FS since September 2012 and am now also an arbitrator. It’s necessary to download some software in order to do the work and to be able to follow the Project Instructions specific to that project. Each batch is indexed by two people and, if there are differences of opinion, arbitrated by a third. Once a batch has been arbitrated, it’s possible to view it and see what alterations have been made to your entries. "

"I have joined a FamilySearch support group on Facebook (Share Batch Indexing Etc - SBIE). The group administrators are very efficient at posting project updates from FS to help keep us all up-to-date with the latest info. Members of SBIE are worldwide, and many have other [than English] language skills, so if you raise a query, you can get answers at most times of the day or night."

Should any members wish to post questions or comments about volunteering there is a thread on the Research Forum where these can be added – click Here. If you know of projects seeking volunteers or if you would like to be a “contact point” for members who want a private friendly chat, then let us know and we can add your details to the listing above.

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