Q. I'd like to transcribe my great-grandfather's journals for my family. He spelled phonetically, with no punctuation and little capitalization. Should I copy the journals exactly as he wrote them? How do I indicate an unknown word? Should I include copies of all the journal pages, or just portions?
A. Documentary editors, who transcribe historical papers, follow guidelines for precisely what you’re doing with your great-grandfather’s journals. You can transcribe the journals verbatim, but if they’d be difficult for your family to read, it’s perfectly acceptable to correct the spelling and insert punctuation — provided you say you’re doing this in the introduction to the journals. There, include a short sample paragraph showing your great-grandfather’s exact usage, followed by your edited version.
To indicate an undecipherable word, use a question mark within brackets, like this: “I walked to Hunter’s dry goods [?] today.” Or if you can guess what the word is from the context, include it in brackets: “I walked to Hunter’s dry goods [store] today.” Similarly, if you can make out some of the letters, bracket the ones you don’t know: “I walked to Hunter’s dry goods store today.” Basically, surround with brackets any writing you insert into your ancestor’s.
Readers like to see historical handwriting, and because you’ll be doing quite a bit of editing, your family will want to see what the original looked like. I’d include copies of the actual pages. Depending on each journal’s length, you may want to reproduce it in its entirety, so everyone has a copy. If you do include just portions, try to use pages that have completed sentences at the beginning and end of the page, so you don’t leave the reader hanging. For more guidance on transcribing ancestral journals and other papers, see Katherine Scott Sturdevant’s Organizing and Preserving Your Heirloom Documents (Betterway Books).
From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine