Whenever I go to an archive, I bring a notepad and pencils with me (as pens are often times not allowed). That’s it. No camera, no laptop. Then, when I find a record I need, I transcribe it by hand. I don’t take a picture, often times don’t make a copy, and I don’t transcribe it directly to my laptop. Many have called me crazy for it. When I was transcribing all of the letters Lodewijk Wesselo had written – hours upon hours of transcribing by hand – many people asked me “why don’t you just make a copy?” It has several reasons.
First and foremost is the reason that transcribing by hand makes me look at record I am studying in detail. I don’t miss anything due to speed because I am writing down every word by hand. If I were to do it directly onto a laptop, I would go faster and make more mistakes, and on top of that I wouldn’t take in as many details.
Secondly, handwriting is very difficult to read on a copy. Handwriting is often faded, and the lines of the text are not equally clear (or unclear) on the entire document. I tried to take a copy of a handwritten letter and it took me five times before I had a reasonably readable copy – that’s also paying for four copies I cannot use! And that is not taking into account the tremendous amount of money I would have had to pay to copy every single letter I transcribed – and that’s only a fraction of the collection of letters written by my ancestors at that particular archive! So yes, money is one of the reason I transcribe by hand.
So why not take a picture? To be honest, most of the transcribing I do is at an archive where photography is not allowed. But still, even if I could take a picture, I still wouldn’t. Because then I would have to transcribe the pictures, because pictures are not searchable. And I like being able to search on names, especially in letters and journals where a lot of names are mentioned. Also, even if I were transcribing from a picture, I would be right back at the beginning of this post, with my primary reason for transcribing by hand being the slow take-in of information.
So, I first transcribe by hand, then enter that into a word document. That way I have a digital copy, searchable for any word, and by handling the information twice I am insuring I do not miss anything. That is my reason for transcribing by hand. Now does that sound as crazy as it looks?