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Reading and Understanding Old Documents & Records

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Almost every genealogist or family history researcher struggles once in a while to make sense of an old document or record. Whether it is deciphering the fancy handwriting in a sixteenth century will, or understanding the meaning of obsolete terms in a census record or death certificate, old documents present a number of interesting challenges for genealogists.

Handwriting

Considering how prevalent transcription errors are in census indexes and other databases, even modern handwriting can be difficult to read and cause difficulty for genealogists. As you go back in time, the difficulties only increase because added to reading someone's bad handwriting, you'll also have to deal with archaic spellings, unusual scripts and other handwriting oddities. You don't have to be an expert in paleography to read old documents, but some experience with reading old handwriting is a must when dealing with old documents.
Tips for Deciphering Old Handwriting

Dates and Calendars

As your research extends further back into time, you may find youself encountering some unusual dates. Dates may be listed, for example, in relationship to another event, rather than by the calendar. One common example of this practice is regnal years, where the year is recorded by the number of years since the accession of the reigning monarch (i.e. 2006 is the 53rd year of Elizabeth II). Then there is the Julian Calendar with its period of double dating, the French Revolutionary Calendar with its unusually named months, the Quaker system of dating, and the Church Calendar, where dates may be recorded based on the Saint days. It is important to familiarize yourself with the calendar and dating systems in use for the place and time of your research, so that you can correctly interpret the dates.
Getting the Date Right! How to Read & Convert Dates in Old Documents and Records

Archaic & Technical Terms

Genealogists researching in old documents encounter terms from a number of specialist areas, from legal and Latin words, to obsolete names for medical diseases. Old words you encounter may not always mean what you think. A spinster, for example, may refer to an unmarried lady, but could also refer to a woman who worked as a spinner of yarn. Genealogists should always have a few good historical and technical dictionaries at their disposal, to sort out the jargon, decipher the foreign language, and otherwise interpret the true meaning of the words found in old documents.
What is that Word? Dictionaries & Glossaries for Genealogists

Deciphering Digital Copies

Digitized versions of old documents are very prevalent online and on CD-ROM, but these scanned images -- especially the ones made from microfilm -- can often be very difficult to read. Some images come with their own special viewing software, which allows you to zoom, lighten, darken, change the contrast, or otherwise manipulate the image to make it easier to read. For digital images which don't have such software, you can enhance them yourself by using a graphics software program. This won't eliminate all problems, but can make a difficult-to-read document a bit more legible.
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