How to transcribe an 18thC manuscript letter

This module shows how much historical information is contained in 18thC manuscript letters. Any transcriptions you make should be faithful to the letter-writer’s spelling, and include details like strikethroughs and superscripted abbreviations. (To avoid importing errors, make sure computer word-processing functions such as Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar checks are disabled.) You should also indicate clearly any uncertain readings, and any illegible or missing areas of text. By making transcriptions on these principles, you’ll create accurate records of your sources from which you can work in future, even if you no longer have access to the original letter or scan from which the transcription was made.    


Begin by recording the archival or website location of the letter, along with its full archival references, and a note of any permissions needed for reproduction or use. Manuscript letters that can be read in a public archive (or on an archive’s website) sometimes remain in private ownership, and it may be a condition of public accessibility that permission is requested before the letters are quoted, e.g. in a college or university thesis, or in a local history leaflet or guidebook.     


When you start transcribing the text, it’s helpful to follow the layout of the original manuscript as far as possible. Doing so will remind you how the letter-writer used their paper—perhaps he or she crammed a postscript into a corner to avoid taking a new sheet, or folded the letter sheet itself to make the cover sheet. 


Transcription style should be kept simple. Strikethroughs and superscripts can be replicated by Word’s font function. Corrected words or sentences inserted above strikethroughs should be indicated thus: the Parliments of Paris ^France^, and I know yr Pride is [illeg. scorethrough] ^hurt^. If the letter-writer’s correction is cramped or squeezed in, an uncertain reading can be indicated thus: [?hurt].


Information which the letter-writer added later to clarify his or her meaning can also be indicated this way: Sir John ^Gordon^ called when I came so far.


Sometimes it’s possible to state how many words are illegible, e.g. [5 words illegible]. If not, record any information which helps to interpret not just the letter’s content, but also its history as an artefact, e.g. [text missing, page torn at right margin].   


Finally, don’t forget to transcribe the cover sheet. In addition to being addressed by the writer, it may have been postmarked, franked to go under cover of an M.P.’s privilege, or annotated by the recipient. All these details add to our knowledge of the sender and recipient, and the circumstances in which they corresponded.  

Our thanks to the Bodleian Library for the use of the image in our banner: "William Green Jr. (fl. 1732–1752), Scene at an Oxford Book Auction, oil on canvas, 1747; Bodleian Library. Portrait LP.701, 1F.”