A Guide to
Editing and Publishing Family Manuscripts
In talking about editing, I'm going to take a fairly encompassing view
of what it involves in regard to letters, journals, diaries, or similar
original, unique manuscripts of family history. Part of the point
of editing family manuscripts is that they are unique, one-of-a-kind, and
therefore harder to disseminate among family members and other interested
readers without risking damage and loss. Editing and publishing family
manuscripts makes them available to a wider readership at the same time
that it preserves the original. Histories of historical and literary
documents are full of horror stories of what befell manuscripts--for example,
one collector of manuscripts discovered that his cook was using the pages
to start the fire in the kitchen. Some historical documents and literary
texts exist only in incomplete, damaged, or fragile conditions--for example,
the only copy of the greatest Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, barely survived
a library fire in so brittle a condition it cannot be read without danger
to the pages. We must remember that, until Gutenberg made the
printing press viable in the mid-fifteenth century, all copies of any manuscript
were done by hand. It wasn't until our own time, with the advent
of the photocopier and the word processor, that wide spread distribution
of texts was made possible without great expense or special knowledge of
printing. With the advent of desktop publishing it is now relatively
easy for most of us to produce at least competent, readable, appealing
Editing manuscripts involves several steps, some of which are especially
important because you are working with autograph (hand-written by the author)
texts. The most important step is making sure the manuscript survives
your working with it.
the family manuscripts you want to edit are at least one generation removed
from the present. In some families manuscripts can be considerably
older, from the turn of the last century one hundred years ago, from the
Civil War era one hundred and fifty years ago, or even older. The
older the manuscript the more fragile and the more easily damaged it will
be. So the first step in editing the manuscript is to make certain
that care is taken to preserve it. Here are some basic precautions:
- Keep original manuscripts dry.
You should look to keep out dampness that produces mildew while you also
avoid dryness that turns paper brittle. Most archives have climate-controlled
rooms that control moisture and temperature, so that manuscripts aren't
exposed to extremes of variation, sweltering through one season, freezing
the next. Don't keep valuable papers in the attic or the basement
or near sources of heat, steam, or moisture.
- Keep original manuscripts out of
the light. If you have any bookshelves that are constantly in
sunlight, you have probably noticed how the spines of some books have faded
while their covers, unexposed to sunlight by being wedged between other
books, remain bright and colorful. Sunlight in particular can dry
out paper and cause it to yellow as well as make ink fade--things that
make manuscripts more brittle, less readable, and less likely to survive.
- Control access to original manuscripts.
The more exposed and available they are, the more likely manuscripts are
to be damaged inadvertently. If only a few people are allowed to
see the original and then only under circumstances that ensure sensitivity
to the fragility of the document, the better the chances of preserving
- Avoid constant or frequent handling
of original manuscripts. In most archival collections visitors
must wear clean cotton gloves provided by the library in order to reduce
direct contact between the manuscript and the oils and perspiration on
fingertips and hands. Even the most durable bound volumes eventually suffer
from constant wear and tear.
- Make the manuscript available by alternative means such as transcription,
duplication, and publication. Since this is the major purpose of this
guide, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I recommend this. I favor
families knowing about the artifacts of their history. The best way to
do this is to utilize the means we have readily available to us of sharing
family manuscripts without jeopardizing their preservation. More
specifically, the means I suggest are:
Transcription--copying the manuscript by hand, typewriter, or word
Duplication--facsimile, photocopy, or photograph of the original
Publication--reproducing and distributing the transcription or the
duplication in multiple copies either personally or professionally.
Clearly the rest of this guide will focus on ways of preparing the manuscript
to go public--to reach a wider audience of readers, beginning with the family
but perhaps also going beyond to the local or regional community or the general
But I don't want to leave the subject
of preserving manuscripts without emphasizing what I take to be two crucial
pieces of advice:
- When in doubt about the fragility of the manuscript, consult an
archivist. Local historical societies, libraries, and museums can
connect you to resources in this regard, or you can consult with someone at
a more central collection: for example, the Clarke Historical Library at
Central Michigan University or the Library of Michigan at the Michigan
Historical Museum and Library complex in Lansing.
- Consider donating the manuscript to an historical archive and either
working on the transcription there or providing a copy of the transcript
when complete. The older and more fragile a manuscript is, the better
it would be to get it into a setting where you are certain it will be
preserved. Historical archives are wholly devoted to the preservation
of rare books and manuscripts and have the facilities to protect them.
A great deal of family history is moldering in landfills across America
because people didn't know or care what they were discarding or because the
materials were already in a serious state of decay. Historical
archives can often estimate the value of a donated collection so that it can
be used as a charitable contribution on tax forms; more important, they can
set manuscripts aside, out of the flow of history, with all its accidents,
incidents, migrations, moving vans, fires, floods, estate sales,
indifferences and inadvertences.
A good website to consult for conserving manuscripts and rare books is
Newberry Library, http://newberry.org or http://newberry.org/conser/isc185.htm.
Transcribing the Manuscript
Transcribing the manuscript means
copying the manuscript by hand, typewriter, or word processor. In order to
prepare a transcription of the manuscript you will need to read it. If you
work with the original manuscript itself, you ought to be careful about handing
it. Some basic rules for handling original manuscripts:
- Don't write on the manuscript in either pencil or pen, but use pencil
around it so that you can erase marks if you make them.
- Don't eat or drink around the manuscript, because of the danger of
damaging it with spills and stains.
- Don't handle the manuscript a lot because of the brittle condition of the
paper and the contamination touch of perspiration and skin oils.
- Don't lean on or hold upright or press down on manuscripts.
- Don't read on an unclean or cluttered surface.
- Don't photocopy if there is danger of damage to folds, binding, or paper.
If in doubt about the safety of photocopying, consult an archivist with the
manuscript in hand.
In order to avoid damage to the original manuscript, you may want to
photocopy it, do the majority of your work from photocopies, and limit the
amount of handling of the original. But you should be aware of the
advantages and disadvantages of working with photocopies.
- You can write on and mark up photocopies.
- You can handle them more.
- You can enlarge them.
- You can make transparencies of them and project them.
- The original may be too faint to read when photocopied, particularly in
- The original may have bled through from the other side, making the
photocopy hard to read.
- The original may be written in different colors or inks which copies don't
As a general rule, I would recommend using photocopies, where possible, when
you transcribe the manuscript for the first time and when you revise your text,
format it, or proofread. But at some point you will have to go back to the
original to make certain that the photocopying hasn't interfered with the
accuracy of your transcription. Another basic rule to remember: ALWAYS
CHECK THE TRANSCRIPTION AGAINST THE ORIGINAL LINE BY LINE, WORD BY WORD.
Problems in Reading Historical Manuscripts
If you have occasion to read other
people's handwriting much, you inevitably have encountered difficult
manuscripts. Some people write an illegible scrawl or a flowery unvarying
script or a hurried scramble of letters, making something as simple as a grocery
list or a post-it note a challenge for readers. As a teacher I much prefer
typewritten or word-processed texts because, even when the author is not a good
typist, I have less trouble deciphering the letters on the page.
Historical manuscripts have all the problems inherent in any handwritten
document as well as problems that are created by the gap between the historical
periods of the writer and the reader. Some examples that come to mind:
- Changes in handwriting customs over time--People aren't taught to form letters in the same way over the
centuries. In Shakespeare's time, for example, writers often wrote in distinctly
different forms, notably the secretary hand, the italic hand, and the court
hand. It is less difficult to read most historical American handwriting
because the forms of handwriting haven't changed drastically over the past
two hundred years, although the older the manuscript the more likely it
contains significant differences in letter formation, spelling and standard
syntax. In the Ruth Douglass journal, for example, the first "s"
at the end of her name would be formed differently from the second "s",
which could look like an "f" or an upper case "J". In other manuscripts
from the same period I noticed that, in a word like the abbreviation for
Mister, the M would be capitalized and regular size, but the "r" would
be smaller, written above the line, and underlined ("Mr."). I once read
a published transcription of a report by Douglass Houghton which identified
Mr. Douglass as McDouglass, a mistake of the reader rather than a mistake
of the writer, who after all was talking about his cousin.
Terms that drop out of usage--Vocabulary,
idiomatic or popular expressions, and standard phrases come in and out
of daily usage over time. In our time many phrases which come from
computer terminology have replaced phrases from an earlier technology.
In my research on Ruth Douglass, for example, I had to look up a phrase
like "the lions of the city" (which meant the interesting sights to be
seen) or "among the traps" (which meant among the odds and ends).
On several occasions someone wrote of something happening on a certain
date as "Bela Hubbard was married on the 2nd inst." I learned that
"inst." was an abbreviation of "instant", which at that time meant the
month in which the writer was writing.
Difficulty in individual handwriting--In
every period, no matter what the habits and traditions of penmanship, the
individual writer has his or her own habits that make some letters confusing
or illegible. In the Ruth Douglass manuscript I read one phrase as
"the home of the Steamboat Maretz" and spent a long time trying to identify
that particular steamboat. Only by carefully comparing each letter
in what I thought was "Maretz" with similar letters in other, more legible
words did I realize that she had written "the home of the Steamboat Yards."
Similarly, I tried to locate information about a woman whose death Ruth
mentioned but was uncertain if it was Mrs. Ackley, Abley, or Ashley, until
I found a newspaper account of the death of Mrs. Ashley on about the right
All of these examples suggest that a careful reading may occasionally lapse
into a combination of detective work and historical research in handwriting
and English usage. An observant reader will record these new ways
to read the manuscript as they arise so they can read the rest of the manuscript
To examine a page from a historical
manuscript and compare it with a transcription go to the Douglass Houghton
Some of the difficulty of accurate transcription comes from the difficulty
that scribes have reading the original manuscript. For this reason
I recommend going over the manuscript line by line, word for word, as you
prepare the transcription for duplication or publication. But, along
the way, you can also try some strategies for keeping track of difficult
or uncertain readings and deciphering them. It is a good idea not
to stop your transcription and just keep working on the difficult word
or phrase, because it may be that further into the manuscript you'll find
the same phrase again, only this time it will be more legible. Try
some of these strategies on difficult passages:
Don't record rough guesses without
specifying them as such. Leave a space in your transcription
(_______.) and/or a clear indicator of a problem such as a bracket and
question mark [?] or a bracket with the word "illegible" or "undecipherable"
[illeg.] wherever these places crop up so that you can return to them with
various other strategies for deciphering them.
- Keep a list of locations of unread
illegible words. You should locate them by date and line number (i.e.,
"June 16 1848, line 7") so that you can systematically go back through
and try to work them out later. However, don't count on your list
of locations alone; do the line-by-line, word-by-word check after you think
you've transcribed everything correctly.
Return to words from time to time
and try to read them again. For example, when you come back to
transcribing after a lay-off of a day or so, you may bring a fresh point
of view to rereading the hard parts and decipher them instantly because
of your familiarity with the handwriting. This is also a good way
to make certain you don't forget about them.
Use a magnifying glass to alter the
size of the handwriting. Sometimes seeing an illegible word or
phrase differently can make it obvious.
Get someone else to read it.
In small groups in my text editing class I try to get to read different
readers to examine difficult texts; often one of a group of three or four
people will simply recognize the word on sight. That may happen as
well with family members.
Break the word down letter by letter
and look for other places you have seen a similar letter formation.
When I had trouble reading the word I thought was "Maretz" and turned out
to be "Yards", it was the similarity of the final S in Ruth's handwritten
"Douglass" to the last letter in the mystery word that made me realize
it was an "S" rather than a "Z".
Read the sentence aloud. Sometimes you'll
guess what word or phrase ought to go in the empty space and either be
right or be close enough to the correct word to work it out.
Enlarge a photocopy of the difficult
section, put erasable bond over it, and try to copy the lines in the letters.
Sometimes trying to write the letters will make you recognize them. Scholars
working on Elizabethan handwriting, for instance, often learn to write
in the secretary hand or the italic hand themselves, so that they are more
alert to how letters are formed and what confusions arise in that particular
Put the photocopy on an opaque projector
or make a transparency for an overhead projector, then project the image
on a screen or white wall, and copy it onto a blank sheet of paper. Both
the size and the physical manipulation of the letters will help here.
Even with the best will in the world
it sometimes happen that there is no way to decipher the handwriting in
certain places. At that point it's fine to simply leave the [illegible]
marker in the transcription or an indication of the uncertainty of a reading
[?] so that the reader knows that something is missing, undecipherable,