Family History - How to Effectively and Efficiently Transcribe Family Letters

13 June 2011 11:33 AM CDT

I just found a way to effectively and efficiently transcribe family letters so I thought I’d share my technique.

First, a little background.  I’ve got a lot of handwritten family letters.  The collection starts in the 1910s with a series of letters my great-grandparents wrote to each other as they were dating and prior to their marriage.  We literally have almost all of their letters.  The collection starts with some of their first correspondence - they met at a wedding and started writing letters shortly thereafter.  And, the collection concludes with a letter announcing the arrival of their first born child (my grandfather).  It’s an incredibly cool collection.  After that, we’ve got a massive collection of letters that my grandparents wrote to one another when my grandpa was stationed overseas during World War Two.  Again, a large collection of love letters.

Several years ago my family decided it was time to bring this collection into the digital age.  That meant transcribing and digitizing.  My mother took the responsibility of transcribing the letters between my great-grandparents.  She sat at her keyboard and dutifully typed out every single letter.  She did an amazing job - thanks, mom!  Right now my aunt (my mother’s sister) is doing the same thing with my grandparent’s letters - keep up the good work, Cathie!  Only recently did I come up with an easy way to facilitate this process.  It’s a lot of letters and speeding up the process would be awesome.  So, here’s my idea.

I own an automatic document feed scanner.  What that means is that I can load up to 50 sheets of paper into the scanner and it will feed each sheet through the scanner and scan it individually.  It can scan both sides of the paper and can automatically generate PDFs.  I own the NeatScan by the Neat Company, but you can buy ADF scanners from other manufacturers as well.  That’s step one - scan all of the letters and generate PDFs.  Time for step two.  Once you’ve got your letters scanned you can use Dragon Dictation (an iPhone app) from Nuance to transcribe the letters simply by reading them out loud.  I took the first letter, opened Dragon Dictation, and simply read the letter as articulately as I possibly could.  When I finished I simply copied and pasted the text from Dragon Dictation into an email message to myself.  Amazingly, the transcription was virtually flawless.  Bravo, Nuance!  My grandparents used alternate spellings of words and had quirky punctuation so I did have to make final edits after the transcription.  However, using this technique massively sped the process of transcribing the letter.

If you’ve got a large historical collection of letters to transcribe I recommend using my technique - it sure is speeding the process for me.