How can I decipher the handwriting in old documents?

A common frustration for researchers is trying to read old documents, in print, on microfilm or online. The handwriting may be in an unfamiliar style with archaic letters, terms and spelling or the handwriting may be messy, if not downright illegible: and that is to say nothing of documents in a foreign language. There are some things you can do.

Above all be patient, take your time, use good lighting and a good magnifying glass.

  1. Look for familiar words that you can read and then use those words as a guide to finding other words with the same letters. Dates and names are a good example.

  2. Old documents of a certain type (parish records, probate records, land records, etc.) often use the same terminology, so deciphering terms in one document may help you in another.

  3. Keep an open mind when it comes to spellings. Words may not be spelled as you would imagine then, and there may be archaic terms used that are unfamiliar. It is often good to consult a glossary of terms for the type of document you are researching.

  4. Practice, practice, practice. Our brains have the magic of putting 2 + 2 together, sometimes while we are doing other things. Study a document, going back over it several times, each time something new may stand out. When it does, take good notes so you don't forget the next time through. And if you can, put it away for a day or two: when you come back, your brain might have done some processing and you will be able to discern more than you could before. For English The National Archives at Kew provides a practice documents with tips to make it easier.

  5. You can also look for help, consulting with other researchers -- a good place might be the local Family History Center where researchers gather who may have more experience. You can also study online, check the library or bookstore for books on old handwriting, and look for classes on at local genealogical conferences.
FamilySearch.org offers a wide variety of handwriting Research Guides in various languages (click on the letter H), and also offers online classes. And the National Archives at Kew offers an online tutorial on English palaeography and one on Beginners' Latin, to help decipher legal terms.

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