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Primary Sources: Digital Transcription

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.

Eileen diaryWednesday, January 1
Up to Edna's all day.
Gertrude's, Lillian's
and Lucille's and we
were there. At nite
read book and
listened to Gracie
Allen. "The Music
goes Round & Round."

Editorial Decisions

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.

Sometimes areas of a document are illegible. Use the following strategies to help with difficulty materials:

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:

Transcription Index

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:

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:

Transcription Overview

It's a good idea to create a page that provides an overview of the transcription project. This page might include the following information:

Some projects include detailed information about the original documents and reproductions. Explore the following examples:

Transcription Layout

There are many ways to lay out a project that involves transcription.

Explore the following examples:

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