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.


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

Editing Manuscripts


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

In talking about editing, I'm going to take a fairly encompassing view of what it involves in regard to letters, journals, diaries, or similar original, unique manuscripts of family history.  Part of the point of editing family manuscripts is that they are unique, one-of-a-kind, and therefore harder to disseminate among family members and other interested readers without risking damage and loss. Editing and publishing family manuscripts makes them available to a wider readership at the same time that it preserves the original. Histories of historical and literary documents are full of horror stories of what befell manuscripts--for example, one collector of manuscripts discovered that his cook was using the pages to start the fire in the kitchen. Some historical documents and literary texts exist only in incomplete, damaged, or fragile conditions--for example, the only copy of the greatest Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, barely survived a library fire in so brittle a condition it cannot be read without danger to the pages. We must remember that, until Gutenberg made the printing press viable in the mid-fifteenth century, all copies of any manuscript were done by hand. It wasn't until our own time, with the advent of the photocopier and the word processor, that wide spread distribution of texts was made possible without great expense or special knowledge of printing. With the advent of desktop publishing it is now relatively easy for most of us to produce at least competent, readable, appealing texts.

Editing manuscripts involves several steps, some of which are especially important because you are working with autograph (hand-written by the author) texts. The most important step is making sure the manuscript survives your working with it.

Preserving the Manuscript:

Usually the family manuscripts you want to edit are at least one generation removed from the present. In some families manuscripts can be considerably older, from the turn of the last century one hundred years ago, from the Civil War era one hundred and fifty years ago, or even older. The older the manuscript the more fragile and the more easily damaged it will be. So the first step in editing the manuscript is to make certain that care is taken to preserve it. Here are some basic precautions:

  • Keep original manuscripts dry. You should look to keep out dampness that produces mildew while you also avoid dryness that turns paper brittle. Most archives have climate-controlled rooms that control moisture and temperature, so that manuscripts aren't exposed to extremes of variation, sweltering through one season, freezing the next. Don't keep valuable papers in the attic or the basement or near sources of heat, steam, or moisture.
  • Keep original manuscripts out of the light.; If you have any bookshelves that are constantly in sunlight, you have probably noticed how the spines of some books have faded while their covers, unexposed to sunlight by being wedged between other books, remain bright and colorful. Sunlight in particular can dry out paper and cause it to yellow as well as make ink fade--things that make manuscripts more brittle, less readable, and less likely to survive.
  • Control access to original manuscripts. The more exposed and available they are, the more likely manuscripts are to be damaged inadvertently. If only a few people are allowed to see the original and then only under circumstances that ensure sensitivity to the fragility of the document, the better the chances of preserving it.
  • Avoid constant or frequent handling of original manuscripts. In most archival collections visitors must wear clean cotton gloves provided by the library in order to reduce direct contact between the manuscript and the oils and perspiration on fingertips and hands. Even the most durable bound volumes eventually suffer from constant wear and tear.
  • Make the manuscript available by alternative means such as transcription, duplication, and publication. Since this is the major purpose of this guide, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I recommend this. I favor families knowing about the artifacts of their history. The best way to do this is to utilize the means we have readily available to us of sharing family manuscripts without jeopardizing their preservation. More specifically, the means I suggest are:

Transcription--copying the manuscript by hand, typewriter, or word processor.
Duplication--facsimile, photocopy, or photograph of the original manuscript.
Publication--reproducing and distributing the transcription or the duplication in multiple copies either personally or professionally.

Clearly the rest of this guide will focus on ways of preparing the manuscript to go public--to reach a wider audience of readers, beginning with the family but perhaps also going beyond to the local or regional community or the general public.

But I don't want to leave the subject of preserving manuscripts without emphasizing what I take to be two crucial pieces of advice:

  • When in doubt about the fragility of the manuscript, consult an archivist. Local historical societies, libraries, and museums can connect you to resources in this regard, or you can consult with someone at a more central collection: for example, the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University or the Library of Michigan at the Michigan Historical Museum and Library complex in Lansing.
  • Consider donating the manuscript to an historical archive and either working on the transcription there or providing a copy of the transcript when complete. The older and more fragile a manuscript is, the better it would be to get it into a setting where you are certain it will be preserved. Historical archives are wholly devoted to the preservation of rare books and manuscripts and have the facilities to protect them. A great deal of family history is moldering in landfills across America because people didn't know or care what they were discarding or because the materials were already in a serious state of decay. Historical archives can often estimate the value of a donated collection so that it can be used as a charitable contribution on tax forms; more important, they can set manuscripts aside, out of the flow of history, with all its accidents, incidents, migrations, moving vans, fires, floods, estate sales, indifferences and inadvertences.
A good website to consult for conserving manuscripts and rare books is The Northeast Documents Conservation Center.

Transcribing the Manuscript:

Transcribing the manuscript means copying the manuscript by hand, typewriter, or word processor.  In order to prepare a transcription of the manuscript you will need to read it.  If you work with the original manuscript itself, you ought to be careful about handing it.  Some basic rules for handling original manuscripts:

  • Don't write on the manuscript in either pencil or pen, but use pencil around it so that you can erase marks if you make them.
  • Don't eat or drink around the manuscript, because of the danger of damaging it with spills and stains.
  • Don't handle the manuscript a lot because of the brittle condition of the paper and the contamination touch of perspiration and skin oils.
  • Don't lean on or hold upright or press down on manuscripts.
  • Don't read on an unclean or cluttered surface.
  • Don't photocopy if there is danger of damage to folds, binding, or paper. If in doubt about the safety of photocopying, consult an archivist with the manuscript in hand.

In order to avoid damage to the original manuscript, you may want to photocopy it, do the majority of your work from photocopies, and limit the amount of handling of the original.  But you should be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of working with photocopies.


  • You can write on and mark up photocopies.
  • You can handle them more.
  • You can enlarge them.
  • You can make transparencies of them and project them.


  • The original may be too faint to read when photocopied, particularly in pencil.
  • The original may have bled through from the other side, making the photocopy hard to read.
  • The original may be written in different colors or inks which copies don't distinguish between.

As a general rule, I would recommend using photocopies, where possible, when you transcribe the manuscript for the first time and when you revise your text, format it, or proofread. But at some point you will have to go back to the original to make certain that the photocopying hasn't interfered with the accuracy of your transcription.  Another basic rule to remember: ALWAYS CHECK THE TRANSCRIPTION AGAINST THE ORIGINAL LINE BY LINE, WORD BY WORD.

Problems in Reading Historical Manuscripts

If you have occasion to read other people's handwriting much, you inevitably have encountered difficult manuscripts. Some people write an illegible scrawl or a flowery unvarying script or a hurried scramble of letters, making something as simple as a grocery list or a post-it note a challenge for readers. As a teacher I much prefer typewritten or word-processed texts because, even when the author is not a good typist, I have less trouble deciphering the letters on the page. Historical manuscripts have all the problems inherent in any handwritten document as well as problems that are created by the gap between the historical periods of the writer and the reader.  Some examples that come to mind:

  • Changes in handwriting customs over time--People aren't taught to form letters in the same way over the centuries. In Shakespeare's time, for example, writers often wrote in distinctly different forms, notably the secretary hand, the italic hand, and the court hand. It is less difficult to read most historical American handwriting because the forms of handwriting haven't changed drastically over the past two hundred years, although the older the manuscript the more likely it contains significant differences in letter formation, spelling and standard syntax. In the Ruth Douglass journal, for example, the first "s" at the end of her name would be formed differently from the second "s", which could look like an "f" or an upper case "J". In other manuscripts from the same period I noticed that, in a word like the abbreviation for Mister, the M would be capitalized and regular size, but the "r" would be smaller, written above the line, and underlined ("Mr."). I once read a published transcription of a report by Douglass Houghton which identified Mr. Douglass as McDouglass, a mistake of the reader rather than a mistake of the writer, who after all was talking about his cousin.
  • Terms that drop out of usage--Vocabulary, idiomatic or popular expressions, and standard phrases come in and out of daily usage over time. In our time many phrases which come from computer terminology have replaced phrases from an earlier technology. In my research on Ruth Douglass, for example, I had to look up a phrase like "the lions of the city" (which meant the interesting sights to be seen) or "among the traps" (which meant among the odds and ends). On several occasions someone wrote of something happening on a certain date as "Bela Hubbard was married on the 2nd inst." I learned that "inst." was an abbreviation of "instant", which at that time meant the month in which the writer was writing.
  • Difficulty in individual handwriting--In every period, no matter what the habits and traditions of penmanship, the individual writer has his or her own habits that make some letters confusing or illegible. In the Ruth Douglass manuscript I read one phrase as "the home of the Steamboat Maretz" and spent a long time trying to identify that particular steamboat. Only by carefully comparing each letter in what I thought was "Maretz" with similar letters in other, more legible words did I realize that she had written "the home of the Steamboat Yards." Similarly, I tried to locate information about a woman whose death Ruth mentioned but was uncertain if it was Mrs. Ackley, Abley, or Ashley, until I found a newspaper account of the death of Mrs. Ashley on about the right date.

All of these examples suggest that a careful reading may occasionally lapse into a combination of detective work and historical research in handwriting and English usage. An observant reader will record these new ways to read the manuscript as they arise so they can read the rest of the manuscript more easily.

To examine a page from a historical manuscript and compare it with a transcription go to the Douglass Houghton journal page.

Strategies for Reading:

Some of the difficulty of accurate transcription comes from the difficulty that scribes have reading the original manuscript. For this reason I recommend going over the manuscript line by line, word for word, as you prepare the transcription for duplication or publication. But, along the way, you can also try some strategies for keeping track of difficult or uncertain readings and deciphering them. It is a good idea not to stop your transcription and just keep working on the difficult word or phrase, because it may be that further into the manuscript you'll find the same phrase again, only this time it will be more legible. Try some of these strategies on difficult passages:

  • Don't record rough guesses without specifying them as such. Leave a space in your transcription (_______.) and/or a clear indicator of a problem such as a bracket and question mark [?] or a bracket with the word "illegible" or "undecipherable" [illeg.] wherever these places crop up so that you can return to them with various other strategies for deciphering them.
  • Keep a list of locations of unread illegible words. You should locate them by date and line number (i.e., "June 16 1848, line 7") so that you can systematically go back through and try to work them out later.  However, don't count on your list of locations alone; do the line-by-line, word-by-word check after you think you've transcribed everything correctly.
  • Return to words from time to time and try to read them again. For example, when you come back to transcribing after a lay-off of a day or so, you may bring a fresh point of view to rereading the hard parts and decipher them instantly because of your familiarity with the handwriting. This is also a good way to make certain you don't forget about them.
  • Use a magnifying glass to alter the size of the handwriting. Sometimes seeing an illegible word or phrase differently can make it obvious.
  • Get someone else to read it. In small groups in my text editing class I try to get to read different readers to examine difficult texts; often one of a group of three or four people will simply recognize the word on sight. That may happen as well with family members.
  • Break the word down letter by letter and look for other places you have seen a similar letter formation. When I had trouble reading the word I thought was "Maretz" and turned out to be "Yards", it was the similarity of the final S in Ruth's handwritten "Douglass" to the last letter in the mystery word that made me realize it was an "S" rather than a "Z".
  • Read the sentence aloud. Sometimes you'll guess what word or phrase ought to go in the empty space and either be right or be close enough to the correct word to work it out.
  • Enlarge a photocopy of the difficult section, put erasable bond over it, and try to copy the lines in the letters. Sometimes trying to write the letters will make you recognize them. Scholars working on Elizabethan handwriting, for instance, often learn to write in the secretary hand or the italic hand themselves, so that they are more alert to how letters are formed and what confusions arise in that particular orthography.
  • Put the photocopy on an opaque projector or make a transparency for an overhead projector, then project the image on a screen or white wall, and copy it onto a blank sheet of paper. Both the size and the physical manipulation of the letters will help here.

Even with the best will in the world it sometimes happen that there is no way to decipher the handwriting in certain places. At that point it's fine to simply leave the [illegible] marker in the transcription or an indication of the uncertainty of a reading [?] so that the reader knows that something is missing, undecipherable, or iffy.

Annotating Manuscripts


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

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 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: 
    http://www.Cyndislist.com or
  • Library of Congress Manuscript Index-- The Library of Congress can be reached on the Internet at http://lcweb.loc.gov/homepage/lchp.html.  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.

Publishing Family History


  • 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

Sooner or later, after you’ve faithfully and accurately transcribed your family history texts, you will want to make them available to other members of your family—parents, brothers and sisters, children, grand-parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. It is certainly possible to simply make one copy and keep it to yourself, but much of the enjoyment of working in family history comes from sharing these artifacts with others. Recovering family history helps preserve the past and connect it to future generations, and it’s good to encourage others in the family to become involved. One copy of a manuscript in a house can reach a number of family members. If you’ve edited and annotated the manuscript, so much the better, because it gives other readers and researchers both inside and outside the family a better understanding of the text they’re engaging as well as a solid starting point for further research. This reproduction of the edited manuscript also allows you to store the original safely and preserve it better, since so few readers will actually need to examine it.

Options for Going Public:

The options that you have for disseminating the edited family manuscript vary in expense and difficulty. Consider these options:

Professional Printing and Publishing—The most expensive approach is to go to a publisher or a professional printer and pay them to copyedit, proofread, format, print and bind your manuscript. Nowadays professional printers can do limited runs of manuscripts at a lower cost than used to be the case, but for most of us the cost is prohibitive. However, if you’ve done a thorough, scholarly job of transcribing, editing, and annotating, you might propose the manuscript to a local publisher or regional press which might be interested in making such work available on the local or regional level. Some small printers and publishers would be willing to publish a small print run and sell the book as a means to recover their costs. Clearly this is a limited option for most of us. My book, “Time by Moments Steals Away”: The 1848 Journal of Ruth Douglass, was published by Wayne State University Press because most of it is set on Isle Royale during the early copper mining era and has a number of historical elements connecting it to Michigan and Great Lakes history. Without some of those ties, the publisher might not have been interested in publishing it.

Copying and Duplicating Services—Another way of going public is to do what people in business and education often do: take a camera-ready copy of the transcribed and edited manuscript to a local copying and duplicating service (like Kinko’s, for example, or Printing Services at Central Michigan University) and ask them to print, collate, and bind a certain number of copies from your original. Most of those companies have a variety of ways to enlarge, reduce, photocopy, and bind work that people bring in, from full-fledged clothboard hardcovers to spiral binding, glued binding, stapling, and notebook formats. They can also punch perforations or three-holed openings so that the manuscript can be sent to individuals for their own binding. Because these printers work closer to cost than other printers they are always cheaper than commercial publishers and larger printing companies.

Self-Photocopying and Binding—It is also possible to “publish” the manuscripts yourself by preparing camera-ready copies and doing the photocopying, collating, and binding on your own. Many professional copy-shops have self-service machines that are cheaper to use than when the copy-shop staff runs things off. Often these machines have multiple-page feeds, so that you can put twenty pages at a time on the feeder and have them all run off and collated with a single press of a button. Those shops will also have a variety of covers and bindings available as well as automatic hole-punch and perforation machines, heat-binding machines, and industrial strength staplers. This kind of publishing is the cheapest and, with all the powers of word-processing, desktop publishing, and photocopying available, very attractive publications are possible.

Webpages—Clearly this form of publication is not for everyone, but it is an increasingly attractive way to publish because it gives you the widest possible distribution of your material at the lowest cost (depending on whether you already have the computer, the software, the internet connection, and the web server available to you). When you cruise the Internet looking for genealogical sites, consider some of them in light of the way information has been made available. Some genealogy programs (Reunion, Family Tree Maker, etc.) are available to help people create family history files, flowcharts, and websites.

Computer Software—Another method is the one that goes along so readily with the methods I’m using to create this guide book, as well as my own manuscripts and writing projects. An alternative for me is to put all this together and save it on a computer disk. For members of my family who have the same programs I have, I can copy the information onto a back-up disk for them. I can also use transfer or file exchange programs to save my work in a different format for someone in another program. At my own office I continually go back and forth between Macintosh and Windows applications. With the advent of writable CD-ROM disks, it is also possible to create your own CD-ROM files for family members with CD-drives on their computers.

Publishing Formats:

If you decide to go public with the manuscript you’ve edited, you have a number of formats to choose among in order to represent the original fairly. Consider the following ideas and examples:

Photocopies and Facsimiles of Original Manuscripts:

The best and more accurate reproduction of the manuscript would be one that lets each reader read it as if it were the original document. Photographic copies of the manuscript might produce the clearest image, but the cost of photographing each page and publishing the entire manuscript at a high enough degree of quality of print and paper to ensure legibility would be prohibitive for most people. Photocopying can be highly reliable but more often can’t quite produce a clear enough image for easy and accurate reading, particularly when the handwriting is in pencil or light ink or when the original is too blurry or has bled through the page. If the original photocopy you made as a text to work with is good, it might make additional photocopies, but the more often you make copies of copies, the more likely the quality of the copies will be reduced. For an example of a photographic reproduction of a manuscript page check the Douglass Houghton journal page.

Transcriptions of Original Manuscripts:

One good way to represent the manuscript fairly without risking illegibility is to transcribe the original manuscript exactly, duplicating the original spelling, punctuation, syntax, and even line-length. If you type it into a word-processing program, you will find a number of fonts that imitate handwriting,

such as this one(Lucinda Handwriting)or this one (Monotype Corsiva)or this one (Times New Roman, the italicized text of the rest of this page)

In fact, you can italicize any font you choose to make it seem more like handwriting. If the transcript has exactly the words in each line, the effect of the transcription will be to make it closer to reading the original than any other format. (With this approach, as with all others, I would suggest including a few photocopied or photographed examples of original manuscript. It will usually make the reader pleased you chose to transcribe it.) For an example of this kind of transcription check the Douglass Houghton journal transcription page.

Photocopy and Transcription Combinations:

Another option is to print a photocopy of the original with a facing page line for line transcription. The transcription can also be printed sequentially, your photocopy of each entry in a journal or diary followed by your transcription of that entry. This second method would take a lot of cutting and pasting and work best with experienced skills on a very good computer. Either facing-page or sequential format would let the reader decide whether to use your transcription or to attempt to follow the original unaided. For an example of the photocopy/transcription combinations check the illustration at the Douglass Houghton journal photocopy and transcription page.

Corrections and Regularizations:

Most hand-written manuscripts reveal the shortcomings or haste or inattention of the writer and turn up misspellings, missing words, random use of punctuation, and particular abbreviations. You may elect to correct the manuscript in transcription and regularize the spelling and punctuation throughout, so that it reads more like a modern commercial text. If you do so, make certain to preserve the original and to note somewhere what you’ve done, so that the reader knows the transcription isn’t verbatim but “corrected.” Another option would be to run an accurate transcription with a sequential or facing page corrected version of the manuscript. Again, the reader chooses whether to follow the original or to read the easier, contemporary format.


In addition to the text itself, in whatever form of transcription you choose to present it, family history manuscripts ought to have some additional elements or apparatus attached to help the reader use it. For example, a typical family manuscript might add:

  • Introduction—an explanation of what the document is, what you’ve done to prepare it for publication, what other elements this edition includes, whatever information you have about the person who wrote the manuscript and the circumstances under which it was written
  • Genealogy—a chart or a family tree or a listing of information connecting the subject of the manuscript to the editor and perhaps to certain readers
  • Illustrations—pictures of people and places, maps, facsimiles of manuscript pages or related information
  • Acknowledgments—a list of individuals and organizations that helped you with the project
  • Index—a list of subjects and individuals to be found in the manuscript by the date of the entry or the page of the transcription on which they can be found (obviously compiled after the rest of the manuscript has been put together)
  • Bibliography—a list of articles, books, websites, archives, periodicals, and personal resources you used to edit the manuscript
  • Notes—explanation and identification of references, terminology, individual characters, sources of further information

The edited and published manuscript might have any or all of these features.

Annotated Transcriptions:

The examples are variations on Ruth Douglass's journal entry of 8 September 1848, which has one note in it, regarding a man mentioned in the entry.


Figure 1. Standard Endnote Numbering

The traditional way to annotate a manuscript is to number each item for which a note needs to be provided, usually with a superscripted number in a smaller font than the word, term, phrase, or item being noted (i. e., notes 1). The page might look like Figure 1, an example of an italicized verbatim transcription, where the note number (79) is non-italic, boldfaced, and superscripted (or raised). The note itself in this case is included in the Endnotes section of the manuscript, following the entire journal. The inconvenience of the endnote system is that it makes the reader turn elsewhere to learn what the note says.

Figure 2. Standard Footnote Format

An alternative method is to place the note at the foot of the page (hence the name "footnote"), usually in a different sized font. This was a more cumbersome system when we had to type footnotes at the bottom of the page, but most reasonably good word processing software will have automatic footnoting applications, if you care to use it. Figure 2 models that kind of notation.

Figure 3. Use of Symbols

Of course it is not necessary to number noted material, especially if the note appears on the same page as the passage it comments on. The noted material can be indicated with a symbol, such as an asterisk (*), a tilde (~), a degree sign (°), a dagger (†), or some combination of these or other signs. Figure 3 includes an unnumbered note at the bottom of the page.

Figure 4. Notes Immediately Following Entry 

An alternative to that method is to include the note, in a different sized font, immediately after the item it explains. This is a method often used in published editions of diaries, journals, and letters (See Thomas Merton and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by David Cooper [N.Y.: Norton, 1997] for another example.) Often, in such close quarters, a symbol or an upper case or italicized reprinting of the noted term introduces the note, as in Figure 4.

Figure 5. Columns with Aligned Notation Finally, another method is to print annotations facing the item noted. Sometimes this is done on facing pages, although the logistical problems of making text match up this way can be a headache. Particularly if there is no attempt to reproduce the original manuscript line by line, it is easier to try lining up materials in facing columns, as Figure 5 does. Here the reader can read the text down the left hand column and check the notes in the right hand column.

Figure 5. Columns with Aligned Notation

Finally, another method is to print annotations facing the item noted. Sometimes this is done on facing pages, although the logistical problems of making text match up this way can be a headache. Particularly if there is no attempt to reproduce the original manuscript line by line, it is easier to try lining up materials in facing columns, as Figure 5 does. Here the reader can read the text down the left hand column and check the notes in the right hand column.