Skip navigation

A Guide to Editing and Publishing Family Manuscripts

​By: Robert Root

Prepared on behalf of:

The Clarke Historical Library, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan,
The Gratiot County Historical Society, Ithaca, Michigan,
The Isle Royale Natural History Association, Houghton, Michigan, and
The Leelanau Historical Museum, Leland, Michigan.

This activity is supported by ArtServe Michigan
in conjunction with The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Copyright 1998 by Robert L. Root, Jr.
Portions of this text have been edited due to broken hyperlinks.



  • Preserving Family Manuscripts
  • Transcribing the Manuscript
  • Problems in Reading Historical Manuscripts
  • An Example of a Historical Text: Houghton’s Journal
  • Strategies for Reading


  • Items Requiring Annotation
  • Alternative Ways to Keep Notes
  • Ways of Annotating Manuscripts
  • Sources of Background Information


  • Options for Going Public
  • Publishing Formats
  • Example of Photocopy and Transcription Format
  • Apparatus
  • Annotated Transcriptions
    • Figure 1. Standard Endnote Numbering
    • Figure 2. Standard Footnote Format
    • Figure 3. Use of Symbols
    • Figure 4. Notes Following Entries
    • Figure 5. Aligned Columns



I should explain how I came to prepare this guide.  More than ten years ago I visited an exhibit of journals and diaries owned by the Clarke Historical Library and became especially intrigued by a journal kept by a young woman who had lived at a copper mine on Isle Royale in 1848. To be honest, at first I was more interested in Isle Royale than in the woman and not at all interested in the history of the Michigan copper mining industry. But, thinking it might be worthwhile to offer a summer class in editing diaries and journals, I came back to the library when the exhibit ended in order to read the entire journal and transcribe it myself. I discovered that the library already had one typed transcript of the journal but, when I compared it to the original autograph manuscript, I realized that it was not accurate--it gave misreadings of some words, left others out, and occasionally inserted errors of typing or spelling. So initially my task was simply to come up with an accurate transcription of the journal--an exact reading in typed form.

I worked on the transcription rather casually, when I got around to it, rather than systematically and doggedly. In the same way I searched rather haphazardly for some background information on the author of the journal. The library had attributed it to Lydia Reed Smith Douglass, the wife of Columbus C. Douglass, a copper magnate and Upper Peninsula developer. For a long time I simply tried to find out whatever I could about their lives and to trace the references to individuals and events mentioned in the journal. I was continually frustrated by my inability to find certain information, no matter where I looked. Eventually I looked up the date of C. C. Douglass's marriage to Lydia Smith and (to reduce all my shock and confusion to a single statement) discovered that he had actually been married to Ruth Edgerton at the time the journal was written. By this time I had already planned on publishing the journal. It would have been a big deal to get the author wrong. I had learned my most important lesson in editing manuscripts: NEVER TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED.

In order to be certain that I didn't overlook anything large or small in the rest of the project, I amassed a great deal of background information. In due course I found myself getting deeper and deeper into local and family history, genealogy, and historical archives. My attempt to recover Ruth Douglass has led me to trace Douglasses, Edgertons, and Newberrys back to their arrival on this continent, helped me understand the westward course of migration in the first century of our nation's history, immersed me in the history of Michigan and the Great Lakes region. When I realized that I was the only one who knew the true identity of the author of this journal, I knew I was obligated to make that authorship a matter of public record. When Wayne State University Press publishes "Time by Moments Steals Away": The 1848 Journal of Ruth Douglass this year (1998), I will have satisfied that obligation.

So I am someone who has recently gained experience at editing and researching a historical journal. But my adventures recovering Ruth have not only led me outward into community history and textual editing; they have also led me inward, back toward my own family history and the documents of my family. Working with the journal of Ruth Douglass has taught me that private diaries, journals, letters, and memoirs are human documents that should be preserved, transcribed, and shared, not only with our families but also with our communities and with our posterity. One of my current projects is to trace my family history. If the project does nothing more it will at least say to my children: This is how it happens that you come to be on this planet. I can give them the history that preceded them, the sense of where they are located in a long human chain of existence. It will be up to them to create and record the history that comes after this moment, but I can give them a thorough grounding in the past.

I think this project is worth doing not because my family is so extraordinary but rather because it isn't. It’s also worth doing because it's my family. Every family has stories worth recording, and everyone ought to know something about their family history. Most families are both unique in their own ways and also unexceptional. If we could come to a better understanding of the uniqueness that is in unexceptional people, we would have a better understanding of the majority of humankind.  In recovering the past we discover ourselves.

I’d like to help other people edit, research and distribute their own family history manuscripts, and that’s what I’m doing with this guide. Another project I’m working on is a memoir about how I came to be so involved in the life of Ruth Douglass and what I went through to learn all I did. It is to be called Recovering Ruth. I have been given a grant from ArtServe Michigan in conjunction with the Michigan Council on Arts and Cultural Affairs to help me finish the research and the writing. The grant also encourages me to give public presentations of my work and to offer lectures and workshops for people who might be interested in editing and distributing journals, diaries, or letters from their own families. Preparing the materials for the lecture presentations has led me to also prepare this editing and publishing guide, something people can consult on their own as they need it. To make it more readily available to any one who needs it, I am donating copies to the organizations sponsoring my appearance in readings, lectures, and workshops and granting them permission to let anyone copy the materials who might be interested.

In the following pages I want to give you strategies and resources to help you in preserve, edit, and publish family manuscripts. I hope that you will consider donating family manuscript materials to your local and regional history society or historical archive.  However, whether you do that or not, you should consider donating an edited, annotated copy to such places in order to make your family history part of a greater body of community history. At the very least, I hope this will be a project that becomes available to your family, as a starting place for further research and future additions. I encourage you to see it as a family history do-it-yourself project.  I hope this guide will give you materials you can use to complete this project.

Robert Root
Alma, Michigan
April 10, 1998