When you transcribe an original manuscript, your close reading of every word will make you aware that the manuscript makes references to people, places, and events that are unfamiliar to you or to other people who might read your transcription.  Part of the editing of an original manuscript can involve doing the background research and providing explanations of those references.  Particularly in a family manuscript, identifications of people and family events is especially important.  This can be a challenging part of the editing, because writers of diaries, journals, and letters assume knowledge on their own parts or on their correspondents' parts that does not require explanation--a mere allusion will suffice.

         For example, in an 1841 letter from Douglass Houghton in Detroit, Michigan to his father in Fredonia, New York, he writes, "I learned by Columbus that the Misses Oaks will remain at your house for a time, to which I make no particular objection if they prefer to do so.  They are the daughters of an old and particular friend, and I feel a deep interest in their welfare.  They will, without any doubt, make good progress in their studies and endear themselves to our people.  The young boys will require careful watching . . . "  Columbus, Misses Oaks, old and particular friend, their studies, the young boys, careful watching--there are a number of references here that Jacob Houghton, Douglass's father, would have no trouble understanding but that someone else, like the casual reader, might.  The reader can guess at some of the circumstances here but much of this passage will be unclear unless an editor explains that Columbus is Columbus C. Douglass, a cousin, that the Fredonia Academy was a prominent school in western New York State at the time, and so on.  It may not be easy or even possible to answer every question of this kind that arises, but some explanation of the circumstances under which the specific manuscript was created will surely help any reader.

         One possibility for handling the research on questions of this kind is to enlist the aid of other members of the family.  This can be as simple as making the editing of the manuscript a family project and working together at both transcribing and annotating.  It may also involve round-robin letters to far-flung family members asking for any information they may have about specific events or identities.  On family manuscripts, family collaboration is usually a positive and fruitful experience.

Items Requiring Annotation

         The contents of the particular manuscript you're working with will determine what kinds of information you need to look up.  For example, in the research I've been doing into the lives of Ruth and Columbus Douglass, I often run across geological terminology, the technical language used to describe rocks and minerals, topographical features, and mining practices.  Such terminology would require a specific kind of research.  But most of the time the information the reader will need to understand will be connected to identification of people, places, events, and expressions.  Therefore, in your annotations you will need to:

These will be the items that you will have to research and annotate.

Alternative Ways to Keep Notes

        However you decide to keep notes or to incorporate them into your edition of the manuscript, you should devise a way that is systematic and thorough.  You may not get all the answers but you ought to know what all of the questions are.  Here are some alternative ways to keep notes:

Ways of Annotating Manuscripts

        Later in this guide I'll repeat some of this information about the apparatus for annotation that can be attached to your transcription of the manuscript.  Here I'd simply like to raise the possibility of forms your background information might take because these various forms require different kinds of research.

Sources of Background Information

        Where can you turn for information about family history and the historical background of the manuscript you're working on?  That may depend on the nature of the manuscript you have in front of you.  Some private lives are lived in very public ways or in very public contexts.  A figure like Douglass Houghton left plentiful public and private records and had enough significance in Michigan history to have aspects of his life written up by others, but a figure like Columbus C. Douglass left only a handful of letters, mostly about business, and only widely scattered passing references in the private correspondence and public documents of others; the major figure of my research, Ruth Douglass, left only a journal for a one year in her life and fewer public references than I can count on one hand. How successful you will be in your hunt for background information will depend on the prominence of your subjects and of the events in their lives as well as on how determined a detective you are. Happily, research into family, local, and regional history has a broad base of resources, beginning with the evidence in your own household or family records and in your regional historical society and public library and extending through county, state, and national resources.  Here are some places to look:

Other excellent Great Lakes sites that I have personally consulted include the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio; the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois; and the State of Wisconsin Historical Society on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

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