Tips for Learning to Read Old Handwriting

In my work as a professional genealogist, I have to be able to read old handwriting. I know others struggle with this, and I have a couple of tips to share that really helped build my confidence when it comes to reading old handwriting.

My first tip and the best thing I can suggest is to take part in a volunteer indexing project. I signed up for the FamilySearch Indexing project the year it was released. I was onboard when the 1940 census was indexed in a matter of days, when the Civil War Pensions project was indexed, and for a whole host of state-organized projects through various state societies. After working on so many projects, I got really good at reading old and often messy handwriting.

Family Search indexing is not the only indexing game in town. There are indexing projects available through the National Archives and the DAR (if you are a member) as well. Here are those links:

My second tip is to get the book Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry. You can find it at Amazon or another online bookseller.

My last tip is to transcribe, transcribe, and transcribe. Any and all of your own research documents. Don’t have any? Go to FamilySearch and pick any record such as a deed or a will, and get started. If you choose to transcribe documents from a location where there is a local genealogical society that publishes a quarterly journal or other research publication, consider submitting your transcriptions to be published. Society journals are always looking for content. For more information about best practices for transcriptions, see chapter 16 of the book Professional Genealogy (edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills) titled “Transcripts and Abstracts.”

Truly the best way to get better at anything is to practice. I hope the above tips help you find your best way to practice and to also perhaps give back to the genealogical community at the same time.

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