Tag Archives: handwriting

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.

Census Hurdles – Indexing Errors

We’ve all seen it. You’re looking at the index on a commercial website and you just can’t find that name you are looking for. But there are a few that are close in other regards. Maybe the first name is correct but the last name is not even close. Maybe the last name is completely butchered but the names of everyone in the household match up to what you are expecting. And then you click to see the actual census image and there they are, the last name as plain as day to you. Why then, was it indexed so poorly?

For example, unable to find William Avery, I stumbled upon this index entry:

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It very clearly says “Avery” to me, but then again, I KNOW the name I’m looking for. Thankfully Anestry.com allows you to “add alternate information” that shows up when searching. Through collaboration, some of those incorrect index entries can be corrected.

Indexers aren’t always from the same geographic area as the records they are indexing. They may not even be from the same country. We’ve all heard that sometimes these indexing projects are farmed out of the country for cheaper labor. I don’t know for sure, I haven’t looked into it myself, but I know that even indexing records from a different part of the United States can be a challenge! (I’ve done it through FamilySearch Indexing and am much more comfortable indexing Ohio records than I am Georgia records.)

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A sample of a section in Ancestry.com’s wiki on how to read old handwriting.

Aside from lacking familiarity with an areas surnames, there’s the problem of bad handwriting, old script-style handwriting, archaic letter formations, and the like. Good indexers have to try to understand old, swirly, twirly script, they have to become detectives and handwriting analysis experts. Most of the time, they simply do the best they can. There is the human factor to indexing. No one is perfect. Even the best make mistakes.

I am an active indexer for FamilySearch Indexing as well as working on indexing projects for my local area, and have come to have a completely new understanding for what it takes to be an indexer. It has allowed me to have some compassion for those who have so kindly and graciously indexed records for my benefit. I understand why ‘f’ and ‘s’, ‘z’ and ‘g’ or ‘a’ and ‘o’ get confused sometimes. Let’s not forget to be grateful for the speed with which records get indexed these days and the wide accessibility of them. (Almost gone are the days of reeling microfilm page by page by page.)

When you see those errors, think about me (and the thousands of volunteers like me), indexing your ancestors’ records to the best of my ability.