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  Some historical documents and literary texts exist only in incomplete, damaged, or fragile conditions--for example, the only copy of the greatest Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, barely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 texts.

         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.

Preserving the Manuscript

     Usually 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:

Transcription--copying the manuscript by hand, typewriter, or word processor.

Duplication--facsimile, photocopy, or photograph of the original manuscript.

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 public.
        But I don't want to leave the subject of preserving manuscripts without emphasizing what I take to be two crucial pieces of advice:

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:

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.



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:

       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 more easily.

To examine a page from a historical manuscript and compare it with a transcription go to the Douglass Houghton journal page.

Strategies for Reading

         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:

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, or iffy.

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