As family historians we work with information and use original documents and records throughout our research. It is vitally important that every bit of information contained within a document is extracted and analysed for clues and hints for further research.
Unfortunately we often have Document Excitement when we have been waiting for a document such as an English birth certificate where we check the name and date of birth then immediately focus in on the column where the Mother’s maiden name is given so we can then look for the marriage and we may not pay as much attention as we should to the other details on the certificate.
We may not have taken the time then to check every detail such as the address where the birth occurred, who was the informant of the birth, how long after the birth did the registration occur? All of these bits of information can give you further clues for your research.
So how do you analyse a document?
First of all transcribe it exactly, word for word, as written with the spelling and grammar mistakes and particularly the abbreviations as written. You keep each line exactly as written and it helps to number the lines on your transcription. Double spacing the lines can also be useful when you come to review (although you can do this just before you print).
The act of writing it out word for word helps with the analysis as you can see any unusual words etc.
Transcribing can be difficult because of the handwriting and it does take practice. One of the most important fundamental principles in reading old handwriting is that it is always necessary to compare: compare and match unknown letters, characters, or doubtful words in the same document to determine if they are the same.
Compare with words on the same page, and then look on the pages before and after the one in question. Each individual has a way of writing. Remember styles of writing changed over the years and also the words used and the abbreviations used. Start your transcribing with more modern documents then gradually work your way back. This gives you experience before you start with the more difficult early writing.
Remember spelling can vary significantly in a document. When transcribing always turn off your word processor spell checker as otherwise it will auto-correct. Never work with your original, always use a copy. Enlarge to A3 or I have had success with using a large screen TV to show the image. Having a copy on the fridge can also be useful to look at the image and over time a word will suddenly become clear
Transcript is a free (for non-commercial use, for commercial use it is 15 Euros) program you can download onto your PC (It can be used on a MAC using a crossover program).
The big advantage with this is that it has the digital image in one half of the screen and you are typing the transcript either beside it or below it as shown here (you can of course also do this by having two screens). Another advantage is you can place your cursor on the digital image at the point you are typing.
After you have done the transcription have a look at what you have written. Have you any questions about the contents of the document? If so write them down.
You also need to question the document itself.
Is there anything about the document? Is it an original document or a copy? Does it have any seals, notations, additions or markings? Is it a document from a government department? Which department? Why did the document exist? Was there some legislation which required that document? How was the document used?
Was the document created as a legal requirement? Was the information checked? Was there a possibility of a penalty being imposed? Such as for a late registration of a birth? Or maybe a benefit such as upping an age on a marriage certificate to not require parent’s consent or decreasing an age to fit in with age requirements for a free passage?
Who gave the information? We have all seen census documents that don’t match other census information where perhaps the information was given by a neigbour or step-parent. Was the author local to the area? Did they know the surnames or local place names or were they a clerk trying to interpret an accent and names from an unknown place?
When was the document written in relation to the event?
If a will was written a short time before death, the impending death was likely the reason for the will being written.
The relationships given at the time the will was written should be exact for that time period of writing but may not be at the time the will was probated. A daughter may at the time of the will be the wife of Mr James Read but may have been married previously or later to someone else.
Now you have the copy it is time to abstract the genealogical details. One way of visualising the details is to colour key facts: eg names, dates, places, occupations, property descriptions as shown below as this makes key facts very visible:
Or you can list the key points:
It is a case of choosing whatever method works for you. Do make sure you have entered the details into your family history program.I do a lot of Research Help sessions and it is amazing how many brick walls have been demolished with documents already in the person’s possession that had not been wrung dry of all the information they contained.
What other methods do you use to get the most out of your documents, to wring them dry of every last scrap of information?