Transcribing historical manuscripts in PDF software

PDF as Transcription ToolMake transcribing historical manuscripts easier and more valuable using a desktop tool you already have. PDF software can let you zoom in on the manuscript, while transcribing the text as comments. You have not only transcribed; you have made the document searchable without separating it from the scanned image.

Why Transcribe?

You’ve found your great-grandfather’s will, written with a scratchy pen on now-yellowed and disintegrating paper. Reading it offers a challenge — a challenge you only want to suffer through once. You transcribe the document to make it easily usable from this point forward.

If you’re transcribing from the original, typing into document software like Microsoft Word, you are making the document more fragile with each touch. If you have to put a magnifying glass over the document to make things out, typing becomes tedious. You lose your place on the manuscript, then you lose it on the screen. Back and forth.

Clearly it makes sense to digitize the will before you go a step further. Using a scanner or camera, you make a representation of the will, and put the treasured paper document into a safe place.

Save the page scans into a PDF form. You can do this with your scanning software or you can paste the page images into a Word document and save it as a PDF.

Or, maybe you already have a scanned image, downloaded from FamilySearch or Save it to your computer.

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Why transcribe in a PDF reader?

A PDF reader offers a good way to capture transcriptions for several reasons:

  • PDF readers are an essential tool, so virtually any computer will have one.
  • PDFs are, by their very nature, transportable documents. You can send one to a friend, and they’ll be able to read it, though your computers are vastly different from each other.
  • PDF readers allow you to zoom in on the document. You’ll be able to see the handwritten text better than those who wrote it, in many cases.
  • You will be able to transcribe while the document is displayed, without flipping back and forth. (This assumes you’re working on fairly standard hardware and not, say, a cell phone.)
  • You will be able, in essence, to make the manuscript searchable.
  • As you consult this PDF in the future, you will have both the scanned image and your transcription side by side. If you suspect you transcribed something wrongly, you will not have to go in search of the original again.

How do I transcribe in a PDF reader?

Most of us read our PDFs using Adobe Reader in one of its iterations. I am using Adobe Acrobat Reader DC for this exercise. But most of the PDF readers produced in the last few years will have similar features.

Using PDF reader for transcribing historical manuscripts

You can turn your PDF reader into a transcription tool by finding its Comment feature. The software might show your comment in a bubble on the page, wherever you clicked before adding the comment. But it should then offer you a view that let’s you see your comments in a panel together, like the one you see above.

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You will transcribe optimally if you  stop each line exactly where the manuscript does. This will help you find your way back through the handwritten manuscript, if you need to locate where a particular thing was said.

You can add multiple comments to each page, if you want to add other types of information. Perhaps the manuscript is raising questions for you. Add a comment.

Admittedly, you do not walk away with a stand-alone transcription. And in many cases you’ll never need one. But if you do, you’ll need to copy and paste each page’s transcribed text into a document. In fact, it could be a good practice to get into, to save each page’s text to another document as you go.

Ultimately, though, as you research and find the need to check back on a manuscript you have transcribed, you’ll usually find the PDF version most effective. You will be able to consult a picture of the original — something we often want to do.

I hope you find it helpful. If you’re using a PDF reader other than Adobe, I would welcome your comments about whether this is working on the other platforms.


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