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Reading Old Records - Getting Your Eye In

If you're serious about researching your family's history, then before long you're going to want to delve deeper than the records someone else has transcribed for you on one of the big genealogy sites. Birth, marriage death and census might give the bare bones of someone life, but it's the other documents which can add colour.

I've blogged before about the rich detail in maritime logs, which contain detail you just can't get from a list of names and dates. These records have been indexed, but not transcribed.

Indexed means that someone has gone through the records and created an index of names, so when you search for a particular name, a crew list or other document might pop up. But in order to find out what the document is all about, you're going to have to read it, and that's not often as easy as it sounds.

In general, the older the record is, the harder it is to read. But like everything, it's all about practice. Looking at the document you might not think you can read any of it at all, and be tempted to give up. However, you know that your family member's name is in there, so try to pick that out first. Look at the way the scribe has formed the letters in a word you do know - that should help you work out what other words say. Think of it as a puzzle.

Remember also that often it's not essential to read the whole thing. A will, or other legal document, will contain lots of legal jargon and preamble which is irrelevant to the family historian - we just want to get to the good stuff about relatives and who's getting the valuables.

If you're really interested in paleography, then there are some very good tutorials on the website of the National Archives and also on the Scottish Handwriting page.

If you're still stuck, or just don't have the time to teach yourself to read 16th century Secretary Hand writing, get in touch. I'd be delighted to help.

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