Editing conventions for transcribed documents

on Stewart Baldwin's Genealogy Website

Giving an accurate representation of original documents on a website is sometimes a challenge. The problem is that old handwritten documents often use various abbreviations and contractions which could only be accurately transcribed symbol-for-symbol by using special fonts which are not widely available, and might not display correctly on some web browsers even if they were. Trying to do it this way would also have the disadvantage that readers unfamiliar with the abbreviations and/or contractions might not be able to correctly interpret the results. Another possible approach, posting actual images of the documents themselves, requires considerable memory, and has the additional drawback that many would have difficulty reading the early handwriting. Although the exact details may sometimes differ somewhat, the conventions used here will be similar to what is used by many scholars who edit modern editions of old manuscripts.

Ordinary type (i.e., without italics, brackets, or other distinguishing features) will indicate text which has been transcribed exactly as it is in the original document. It should be kept in mind that words were often spelled in a way which we would find strange. In some cases where a typographical error might be expected, a word or letter has been underlined to emphasize that the reading is correct as it is given. Rather than using modern conventions, every effort has been made to represent capitalization and puctuation as they appear, but both capitalization and puctuation are often ambiguous in old documents.

Italics will indicate expanded abbreviations and contractions. Common examples would be "said" for "sd" (the "d" often being superscripted in the original manuscript) and "the" for what is often incorrectly transcribed as "ye" (because what looks like a "y" is actually the old Anglo-Saxon letter which stands for "th"). Personal names will also be expanded in this way when the expansion is unambiguous. So, for example, "Wm." would be expanded as "William" and "Willm." would be expanded as "William". The important thing to remember is that italicized text is a warning that editorial interpretation is taking place, and that the text is not being transcribed exactly as is.

Text which is illegible or torn, but for which the missing letter or letters can easily be supplied by context, will be enclosed in [brackets]. Thus, if "accordi" is followed by an inkspot which obliterates the following letters, but the size of the inkspot and the context of the sentence indicates that the word was "according", then it will be transcribed as "accordi[ng]"

Words which are [italicised and in brackets] did not appear in the original document, and are used in a number of ways to give further information about the document. For example, if the original text is arranged in columns (such as witness lists), the italicised words in brackets might indicate the arrangement of the columns. An illegible or torn section or a blank place in the document might be indicated in this way. Also, if a word is misspelled by leaving out letters, and the correct word might not be obvious from context, then the correct spelling might be indicated by inserting the missing letters italicised in brackets.

Words in <angle brackets> are words that are in the document, but are either interlined, or in the margin. Words in strikthrough mode are crossed-out words which are still readable. Crossed-out words which cannot be read are indicated in the form ????????. As would be expected, a question mark in any of the above conventions indicates an uncertain reading.

Of course, whenever possible, it is always best to examine the original document itself, especially in those cases where the reading of the document is of crucial importance.