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Annotating Manuscripts

Annotating Manuscripts​:

When you transcribe an original manuscript, your close reading of every word will make you aware that the manuscript makes references to people, places, and events that are unfamiliar to you or to other people who might read your transcription. Items Requiring AnnotationItems Requiring AnnotationItems Requiring Annotation Part of the editing of an original manuscript can involve doing the background research and providing explanations of those references. Particularly in a family manuscript, identifications of people and family events is especially important. This can be a challenging part of the editing, because writers of diaries, journals, and letters assume knowledge on their own parts or on their correspondents' parts that does not require explanation--a mere allusion will suffice.

For example, in an 1841 letter from Douglass Houghton in Detroit, Michigan to his father in Fredonia, New York, he writes, "I learned by Columbus that the Misses Oaks will remain at your house for a time, to which I make no particular objection if they prefer to do so. They are the daughters of an old and particular friend, and I feel a deep interest in their welfare. They will, without any doubt, make good progress in their studies and endear themselves to our people. The young boys will require careful watching . . . " Columbus, Misses Oaks, old and particular friend, their studies, the young boys, careful watching--there are a number of references here that Jacob Houghton, Douglass's father, would have no trouble understanding but that someone else, like the casual reader, might. The reader can guess at some of the circumstances here but much of this passage will be unclear unless an editor explains that Columbus is Columbus C. Douglass, a cousin, that the Fredonia Academy was a prominent school in western New York State at the time, and so on. It may not be easy or even possible to answer every question of this kind that arises, but some explanation of the circumstances under which the specific manuscript was created will surely help any reader.

One possibility for handling the research on questions of this kind is to enlist the aid of other members of the family. This can be as simple as making the editing of the manuscript a family project and working together at both transcribing and annotating. It may also involve round-robin letters to far-flung family members asking for any information they may have about specific events or identities. On family manuscripts, family collaboration is usually a positive and fruitful experience.

Items Requiring Annotation:

The contents of the particular manuscript you're working with will determine what kinds of information you need to look up. For example, in the research I've been doing into the lives of Ruth and Columbus Douglass, I often run across geological terminology, the technical language used to describe rocks and minerals, topographical features, and mining practices. Such terminology would require a specific kind of research. But most of the time the information the reader will need to understand will be connected to identification of people, places, events, and expressions. Therefore, in your annotations you will need to:

  • Record names of individuals, objects, locations (Who are Uncle Oliver and Mrs. Ashley? What is the Siskowit Mine or the Propeller Independence?)
  • Record events, whether personal or public, that might need further explanation (What can you learn about the "great fire in Detroit," Calla's death, and the April 1848 storm on Lake Michigan?)
  • Record words or phrases that you or another reader might find unfamiliar or difficult (What does Ruth Douglass mean by "the lions of the city," "among the traps," and "married on the 2nd inst"?);
These will be the items that you will have to research and annotate.

Alternative Ways to Keep Notes:

However you decide to keep notes or to incorporate them into your edition of the manuscript, you should devise a way that is systematic and thorough. You may not get all the answers but you ought to know what all of the questions are. Here are some alternative ways to keep notes:

  • As you read keep notecards handy. Record references by date or page on the top of the notecard, leaving the rest blank to write in the explanation later.
  • As you read keep a notepad handy. Record references by date or page. Leave space under or alongside to write in the explanation later.
  • Keep references by date or page on notecards or notepad, then type the list of references leaving enough room after each entry to record explanations.
  • Keep references by date or page on notecards or notepad, then type the list of references into a word processing file that lets you insert the explanations as you find them.
  • Put a sheet of notepaper the same size as the manuscript alongside the manuscript, number or date the sheet with the same page number or date as the manuscript page, and position notes parallel to the items on the original page. In the case of small manuscripts a sheet of legal pad paper turned on its side could serve to make notes concerning two pages, simply by drawing a line down the middle of the sheet.

Ways of Annotating Manuscripts:

Later in this guide I'll repeat some of this information about the apparatus for annotation that can be attached to your transcription of the manuscript. Here I'd simply like to raise the possibility of forms your background information might take because these various forms require different kinds of research.

  • Introduction: This is your own account of the background of the manuscript--who wrote it when and where, what became of him or her, what you've done to transcribe, edit, and publish the manuscript.
  • Notes: This is a system of explaining particular items throughout the manuscript, presented either in the transcription itself or as a separate section afterward.
  • Genealogy Chart or Family Tree: Even if you don't provide one in your edition of the manuscript, making one up for your own use often helps sort out the cast of characters.
  • Timeline: Another item that may or may not be in your edition, it can be a timeline of events in the manuscript, in the life of the individual who wrote the manuscript, or in the family of the author.
  • Map: This is particularly useful for journals kept on journeys. It can trace travels described in the manuscript but it also can locate the place where events in the manuscript take place, particularly in a historical map that helps the reader understand the period of the manuscript.
  • Pictures: Photographs or sketches of people and events in the manuscript or in the life of the author of the manuscript or in the family history all help give you and your reader as a sense of who the major characters are in this edition and where events took place.

Sources of Background Information:

Where can you turn for information about family history and the historical background of the manuscript you're working on? That may depend on the nature of the manuscript you have in front of you. Some private lives are lived in very public ways or in very public contexts. A figure like Douglass Houghton left plentiful public and private records and had enough significance in Michigan history to have aspects of his life written up by others, but a figure like Columbus C. Douglass left only a handful of letters, mostly about business, and only widely scattered passing references in the private correspondence and public documents of others; the major figure of my research, Ruth Douglass, left only a journal for a one year in her life and fewer public references than I can count on one hand. How successful you will be in your hunt for background information will depend on the prominence of your subjects and of the events in their lives as well as on how determined a detective you are. Happily, research into family, local, and regional history has a broad base of resources, beginning with the evidence in your own household or family records and in your regional historical society and public library and extending through county, state, and national resources. Here are some places to look:

  • Regional, County, Community Histories--Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, communities began collecting biographies of prominent citizens and historical overviews of the settling of communities into large volumes; centennials, sesquicentennials, and bicentennials all prompt retrospectives of community history that make materials available. Many counties also have atlases and plat books that identify ownership of land. These are readily available in college and public libraries.
  • Daughters of the American Revolution and Mormon Materials--During the Depression and later chapters of the DAR went through newspapers, public records, and cemeteries compiling catalogues of information about birth, death, marriage, and land ownership. Many of these hand-typed and mimeographed records are available in genealogical libraries. The Church of the Latter Day Saints has also compiled a vast library of genealogical material, including copies of community histories, family histories, and DAR materials, that is available on microfilm and microfiche at research libraries.
  • Cemeteries--For family history the inscriptions on headstones are very often useful for dates and connections of various family figures. Part of my family comes from Otsego County, New York, and I have found whole sections of Roots, Donaldsons, Lathrops, and Rosses in Gilbertsville and Cooperstown cemeteries. My visits to Ruth Douglass's grave in Elmwood Cemetery, Detroit, and to the Brick Church Road Cemetery near Walworth, Wisconsin, turned up the names and dates of a number of Douglass and Edgerton family members on whom I had no other information, including children about whose existence I had not known.
  • Newspapers--While it is better to look up specific dates and events in old newspapers, just a random reading of period newspapers can be instructive. My reading of the Lake Superior Miner for 1848 gave me a number of references to the activities of Ruth and C. C. Douglass that are recorded no place else, such as the date they arrived in Sault Ste. Marie and stayed at the Van Anden Hotel on their way downstate from Isle Royale in 1849.; Obituaries in local newspapers also give a number of references to other family members and facts about the life of the deceased that broadens your background knowledge. I have been systematically looking up every family obituary I can find and have been rewarded sometimes with photographs and eulogies as well as with information about my subjects' lives. Newspapers also print Year in Review issues that are especially good at listing everything that happened in a community over the course of a year.
  • Historical societies and museums-- The resources available at local historical societies and museums are often far greater than the casual visitor realizes. The county historical society in my hometown is housed in one jammed room of a historic building, but the volunteers who work there have had a lot of experience helping people find information, and provided me with local directories, clippings, and records that were available nowhere else. In addition, the museums may have artifacts and displays that provide a better understanding of the historical context for family manuscripts. A sourcebook for locating local history societies is the Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States and Canada, a continuing series from the American Association for State and Local History.
  • Local libraries-- Local libraries often have local history archives, back copies of newspapers, yearbooks, directories, plat books, clippings, obituaries, and the like, sometimes filling in for the absence of a local historical society, sometimes housing it, sometimes supplementing its resources.
  • Historical collections and genealogical archives-- Around any state are a number of libraries devoted to historical and genealogical research, sometimes focused on a specific region, sometimes focused on the entire state. In Michigan excellent locations for state historical and genealogical research include:
    • Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant
    • Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
    • Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, in the Cultural Center near Wayne State University
    • Library of Michigan, Lansing, in the Michigan Historical Museum and Library complex near the Capitol building.

Other excellent Great Lakes sites that I have personally consulted include the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio; the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois; and the State of Wisconsin Historical Society on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

  • Census records-- Census records are not always complete but often they can locate individuals at particular moments in their lives. Indexes can help find the names of individuals and microfilms of the actual census records will often record useful additional information. In the 1850 census for Michigan, for example, I was able to locate members of Ruth Douglass's family by checking the entry for her uncle Oliver Newberry--it turned out her mother, sister, brother, and infant son were all living there. More recent census records copy on microfilm the actual cards filled out by census takers (up until 1920; records after that are not yet available).
  • Family Histories-- Many families have traced their genealogies and contributed copies of the manuscript or published books on the subject. In my research on the Douglasses I was aided by locating important figures in histories of the Newberry family and the Douglass family; in my own genealogical research I have only needed to get back three or four generations to reach figures who are mentioned in thorough genealogies of the Roots and Lathrops published toward the end of the nineteenth century. One of the advantages of producing a family history manuscript with reliable and thorough annotation is the ability to donate copies to local history societies and libraries and to add your knowledge to the pool of knowledge on family history for others to build on.
  • World Wide Web-- Family and genealogical research sites are proliferating on the web. The last time I called up "genealogy" as a search word on Altavista, a web search engine, it listed 429,464 documents. To get that down to a more manageable size, try accessing these directory sites: or
  • Library of Congress Manuscript Index-- The Library of Congress can be reached on the Internet at  There are also available bibliographies of genealogical material, such Genealogies in the Library of Congress (1972) and The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, a continuing series which locates manuscripts in archives around the country.
  • Family members-- I spent a long time working on the data I had about my family, getting frustrated by my father's uncooperativeness and my siblings' memories, then stopped in to see my aunt and discovered systematic collections of photographs and newspaper clippings--a treasure trove. Try asking family members for material. Artifacts are scattered by death and migration but they may still exist and lead you to information vital to your research.