The further back you get with your research, the harder it is to read original documents. Before the 19th century, almost all documents were hand written. Hand writing conventions were different then, so it can often be almost impossible to decipher what was written.
I would recommend taking a free online tutorial in paleography (the study of old writing). The National Archives in London has an excellent Paleography Tutorial. It has a great practical interactive section that takes you through 10 old document examples from the 1500s to the 1800s.
Many older documents were written in Latin. The National Archives also has a useful Latin Paleography tutorial.
If you manage to get your research back to medieval times, then the National Archives also has a two-stage tutorial in Medieval Latin:
Scottish Handwriting is a website with examples and tutorials teaching you how to read old Scottish handwriting; a skill needed when deciphering old Scottish documents.
Genscriber is a free transcription editor for your PC or Mac which can make transcribing old genealogy documents like census returns and wills easier to manage. It saves you having to use two screens or printing out a document. I myself find it a very useful tool and easy to use.
Optical Character Recognition (OPR) software
The database sites will use sophisticated OPR software to transcribe scanned documents. However, as handwriting varies so much, these programs do not have a 100% success record. You will often find transcription errors.
There is some free OPR software available, but these are not as good as the professional systems used by the websites. I find that these are mostly OK at transcribing printed documents, like newspaper reports, but struggle with handwriting. There are two that I have had some success with:
You need to have a (free) Google account to be able to use this facility. Open Google Drive and import the document that you want to transcribe. Right Click the thumbnail and select Open with Google Docs. You will then get the original document next to the transcription. For a printed or mostly printed document it works reasonably well:
Online OCR is another tool that I have used for transcribing documents. It is very easy to use and you don’t need to set up an account. Just go to the website, select the file you want transcribing, language and output format (Word, Excel or text) and click Convert. You can then download the file. Again, it is better with printed or partially printed documents. It is probably a bit better than Google Docs with handwriting, but you will have to manually correct a lot of mistakes.
I personally find it easier to manually transcribe handwritten documents using Genscriber (above) and I usually use Google Docs for printed records.
For more useful stuff see: Useful Gadgets for Genealogists.
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