Tips for reading old handwriting

In researching our family history, we spend a lot of time reading old handwriting. It can be a big challenge. Here are some tips I’ve gathered over 20 years of working in the field. They break down into 2 categories: digitised documents and manuscripts. Let’s look at manuscripts first.

  • Flatten out the document and use natural light where possible. This may need to be aided by additional electric light if the writing is faded.
  • On longer documents like a letter, focus on one word at a time. It may help to transcribe it. Leave blanks for any words you can’t make out and preserve original spelling and capitalisation. After you’ve transcribed it all, go back and read it aloud. Some of the words will become clear from context. Similarly, you can type up the document.
  • Use two pieces of blank paper to keep your focus on the line in question. It helps to pop out individual lines.
  • If possible, scan the document at a high resolution so you can zoom it up on a computer screen.

If you’re already working with digitised material, for example, a page of a civil register, like the one shown below, here are some further tips.

  • Familiarise yourself with the layout of the page. Is it a pre-printed form or a freeform document? Read all the entries on the page to understand this properly.
  • Use a ruler to keep focus on one line at a time.
  • If you’re having trouble with a particular word, look for other starting letters where the hand is clearer. Each clerk had their own style of writing.
  • Consider what letters look like each other – M and N are obvious, but L and C or H and K in a cursive hand can look similar.

When all else fails, get a second opinion, but be careful not to bias the other person by saying “I think it says X” because then that’s all they’ll see. On the Genealogy forum, we have a dedicated thread for helping people read old writing. If you are asking for help, always include a link to the original image, so that others can zoom it up and play around with it.

I hope these are of use. Let me know in the comments if you have any other good tips.

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