Transcription is the conversion of one form of language into another such as hand written letters into typewritten documents. It can also be process of matching the sounds of human speech to a text format.
Many historical primary resources are transcribed into a digital form to make them easier to access and search. Traditionally, text transcriptions were created by working with the original documents. However with increasing concerns about preservation, many transcribers are now working from digital reproductions of the originals to reduce the impact on the original.
The example below is a diary entry from my grandmother Eileen Kinnick. The entry was made January 1, 1936 at the age of 17. A scanned digital reproduction of the diary page is on the left. The transcription is on the right.
Wednesday, January 1
Up to Edna's all day.
and Lucille's and we
were there. At nite
read book and
listened to Gracie
Allen. "The Music
goes Round & Round."
Editorial decisions must be made in creating transcriptions. It's wise to begin your project with a standard set of editorial guidelines. These basic rules can be expanded as you note exceptions or unanticipated problems. However try to maintain consistency.
- No attempt should be made to correct spelling or perceived "mistakes."
- Avoid the use of capital letters except in those instances where the writer used a capital letter.
- Make educated guesses when unsure of a word. However, use brackets  when unsure of exact transcription. If you're unable to decipher the words, then use brackets and a note such as [illegible]. Some people choose to use colors for particular notations in a digital format.
- Whenever possible, match the punctuation used by the author. Or, standardize punctuation. For example, you may choose to use commas and periods for dashes, vertical strokes, or other markings.
- You may or may not choose to maintain the formatting of the document such as line breaks.
Sometimes areas of a document are illegible. Use the following strategies to help with difficulty materials:
- Examine individual letters and match them to other areas of the text.
- Scan the document at a high resolution and zoom in electronically.
- Read the sentence aloud and look for context and logical connections.
- Ask someone else to read the passage.
- Leave the passage and come back later with a clear mind.
- If you still can't figure it out, take your best guess and put it in brackets.
Examine the follow example from Ruth West's 1920 diary. Identify issues or concerns with transcription. What rules would you establish for this diary?
Errors in transcriptions are common. Read Transcription Updates from the Salem Witch Trials project for examples.
Editorial Decisions Page
It's a good idea to create a set of rules to follow and publish these in the "about" section of your website. A description of the procedures for notes and annotations also is helpful. Examples include:
An index is a very useful supplement to a transcription. It helps users identify key words in the document. In addition to indexes, it's also useful to include a search engine such as Google to help users locate information within the document.
Indexes often include the following information:
- Events. Include battles, movies, milestones (graduation, marriage), noteworthy current events.
- People. First and last name if available, noted dates (birth, death, marriage, events, military information), children, associations (parent, sibling, cousin, servant)
- Places. Include town names, countries, landmarks, popular buildings
- Titles. Include movies, books, television programs, plays, songs.
- Objects. Note items that reflect the times such as tools, equipment, names of automobiles.
- Related Information. Include "see" and "see also" statements
Examine the diary entry from the Ruth West diary above. What key ideas can you pull from this entry that might be included in the index?
Explore examples of diary indexes:
It's a good idea to create a page that provides an overview of the transcription project. This page might include the following information:
- Introduction. Provide an introduction to the project.
- Identification. Provide background information about the document itself including format, length, and other physical attributes.
- Document History. Discuss the origin of the document and trace the history.
- Strengths and Weaknesses. Note strengths or the unique nature of the project along with problems encountered or concerns about accuracy or authenticity.
- Acknowledgements. Include credit and history of document ownership; credit for digital transcription and reproduction
Some projects include detailed information about the original documents and reproductions. Explore the following examples:
- Robert Peary's Diary by Douglas R. Davies - notice the link to National Archives documents and information at top and bottom of pages
There are many ways to lay out a project that involves transcription.
Explore the following examples:
- 17th Century Documents: Salem Witch Trials. They include both scans and transcriptions of the court documents.
- Douglas R. Davies. This example uses a two-column format with one column for the transcription and one for the visual reproduction.