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Archival Skills: Transcription

Guide to the skills required to work successfully with archives including palaeography, archaic terms and spelling, historical dates, weights and measures, language, and transcription.

“If you fail in copying from a master you succeed in birthing an original art.”

Kushal Poddar, Poet 

Introduction to transcription

Whilst visiting archives, you may or may not be allowed to take photographs for research purposes.

In such instances that photography is prohibited, you might find that you need another way to capture the document and its features in full for future reference.

You might also wish to include passages from original documents in your writing, and will therefore need to know how to accurately represent the text.

The aim of transcription is to record the appearance of the text of a manuscript as accurately as possible so as to preserve valuable compositional and writing features, which might reveal something about the document additional to the informational content.

An example of document that you might need to transcribe

Methods of transcription

There are two broad categories of transcription; diplomatic and semi-diplomatic transcription.

Diplomatic transcription makes an attempt to represent everything exactly as it is seen, without expanding abbreviations, etc.

Semi-diplomatic transcription allows the transcriber to make certain changes in order that the transcribed text is more readable. Semi-diplomatic is more commonly used when quoting text in modern academic writing, although you might wish to make a full diplomatic transcription of the text when at the archives so that you can undertake further analysis later.

Whichever route you decide to take, you will need to make decisions about the transcription conventions you will use, record these decisions, and consistently apply your preferred conventions.

Transcription Conventions

Existing standards can be applied when transcribing archival documents.

There are a number of common transcription conventions but, depending on the features of the document to be transcribed, you might find it necessary to include additional conventions. Remember, there is no single set of conventions that you must use, simply be transparent and consistent.

The following Word document provides an outline of common conventions used when undertaking semi-diplomatic transcription of Early Modern manuscript documents in English.