Transcription Guidelines

This is a reference style guide for our transcriptions. For help getting started with transcribing, see these instructions.

Transcriptions Style and Conventions
Based on the Library of Congress style sheet:


Here is the set of styles and conventions that we ask you to follow in your work transcribing the records for Philadelphia’s Historic Congregations project.

These conventions are intended to serve several necessities:

  • To preserve the content, style and flavor of the original documents.
  • To allow full-text searches of the online records.
  • To enable computerized voice synthesis of those records for people who are sight-impaired or otherwise unable to read them for themselves.

These conventions are based on the stylebook developed by the Library of Congress for its crowd-sourced transcription program titled “By the People.” This manual, however, has been modified and augmented to cover elements of style, usage and circumstance that are unique to the Philadelphia project.

Please follow these conventions as closely as possible.

If you have questions or comments, please direct them to the head of the Philadelphia Historic Congregations project:

Carol Smith —

A note about The Big Conflict:

There are two paramount necessities in transcribing these 18th- and 19th-century records, and they regrettably are often at war with each other:

  • The text transcription — the work that you are about to prepare — should replicate as closely as possible the content, style and spelling of the original document.
  • The text transcription should employ modern spellings of both common words and proper nouns so that the whole-text-search and voice-synthesis software works reliably and efficiently once the records are online.

This is The Big Conflict.

It arises from the fact that there were few written-language conventions in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Each clerk used his or her own discretion when it came to things like spellings, punctuations, abbreviations and syntax. Phonetics was the order of the day.

For example, the rector of Christ Church at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War was a man whose name now is generally presented as the Rev. Jacob Duché — a man of French Huguenot descent who spelled his name with an accente acute (a right-leaning accent) over the final é.

His name, of course, appears many times throughout the church records — in at least six different variations. Among them are Duche, Duchey, Dushay, Duchay, Duchy and probably a few additional iterations.

Now consider the quandary of a modern historian doing a computerized search for occurrences of Duché’s name.

What spelling shall he or she use?

Fortunately, there is a solution: the tag.

The tag is a parenthetical supplement, a 21st-century “correction” to archaic and often incorrect entries by the amanuenses of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Here’s an amusing example offered by the Library of Congress:

An original record carried a reference to a man whose name was written as “Ace Blinkin.”

Research showed the man to be Abraham Lincoln.

The correct transcription of this lunacy was thus:

 … Ace Blinkin [Abraham Lincoln] …

The material flanked by square brackets is the tag. It both gives a casual reader corrected information and provides the online search software with a meaningful target.

Above all, it resolves The Big Conflict by satisfying both imperatives that you, the transcriber, must meet:

  • Preserve the original record.
  • Provide a bona fide modern search term.

There are several variants of the tag. Read on to learn about them and how they can solve problems for you.

A word about formatting:


Do not attempt to replicate the appearance of the original record by employing the formatting capabilities of word-processing software such as Microsoft Word.

Use a plain-text word processor — a so-called “pure ASCII” editor — that is incapable of any kind of formatting, even boldface and italic text.

Nor should you use a proportional type font such as Times Roman; use only monospaced fonts such as Courier.

Microsoft Notepad is ideal. It is incapable of formatting or font choices that would bowdlerize your work.

But do make these concessions in your transcriptions:

Line endings:

Preserve the line endings of the original text. When a new line begins in the original record, begin a new line in your transcription with two exceptions:

Hyphenated line breaks within a page:

If a line ends with a hyphenated word, place the entire word at the end of the line; omit the fragment that begins the second line.

For example, if the original text breaks like this:

… and it is determined that the com-
mittee shall pursue a subsequence course …

Your transcription should look like this:

… and it is determined that the committee
shall pursue a subsequence course …

Hyphenated line breaks across two pages:

If the last line on a page ends with a hyphenated word, place the entire word at the end of the line; repeat it as the first word on the following page.

For example, if the original text breaks like this:

… and it is determined that the com-
[page break]
mittee shall pursue a subsequence course …

Your transcription should look like this:

… and it is determined that the committee
[page break]
committee shall pursue a subsequence course …

Tags, tags and more tags:

Here are several types of tags you can use:

Uncertainty (complete):                    [?]

Use this tag to indicate that the text immediately preceding it was illegible or incomprehensible, perhaps because it was heavily crossed out or a fragment of the page was missing.

For example, if the original text looks like this:

He brought kdsriee to cement the agreement.

Your transcription should look like this:

He brought [?] to cement the agreement.

Uncertainty (partial):                       [???omplete]

Use this tag if you can decipher some letters in a word but not others. Record the letters you can read; use question marks for those you can’t.

For example, if the original text looks like this:

He asserted that the agreement was hsromplete.

Your transcription should look like this:

He asserted that the agreement was [???omplete].

Deletions:                                          [DE: vanilla]

If a word or phrase in the middle of a sentence is deleted or struck out, include it as a tag in the appropriate location. Begin the tag with the characters DE:.

For example, if the original text looks like this:

I can’t locate any vanilla ice cream.

Your transcription should look like this:

I can’t locate any [DE: vanilla] ice cream.

Marginal notations:                         [*This was in July 1776.]

Marginal notations often are supplemental information or observations about a topic contained in the main body of text but separate from it. 

Include them in special tags containing an asterisk as the first character. Place the notation in an appropriate spot in the main text, or at the conclusion of it.

As a guide, consider how the text in its entirety — the main body plus the marginal insertion — would flow if it were read aloud.

For example, if the original text looks like this:

Duché favored the vote for Independence at that 
    particular time. Later, he changed his mind.

Your transcription should look like this:

Duché favored the vote for Independence at that
particular time. [*This was in July 1776.] Later, he changed his mind.

Editor’s note:                                   [ED: verb missing]

If it’s necessary to insert an editor’s note, precede it with the characters ED: .

For example, if the original text looks like this:

For 17 years, he the need for reform.

Your transcription should look like this:

For 17 years, he [ED:verb missing] the need for reform.


Additions and insertions often appear above the main text, with a caret indicating the insertions point.

Insert the additional material into the main text at an appropriate point, paying attention to how the consolidated passage will sound when read

Do not use carets or other symbols to indicate the insertion point. If necessary to mark the inserted passage as an addition, use an Editor’s Note tag.

Blank pages or full-page images with no text:

For blank pages or pages with no text on them, place an Editor’s Note tag (see above) noting that there is no text on the page:

[ED:nothing to transcribe]

Images, watermarks, logotypes etc.:

Use an Editor’s Note tag to describe any significant feature on the page that is not text.

[ED:line drawing of royal seal]

Other Notes


In general, do not expand abbreviations.

Type them as you see them unless they contain superscript characters, which cannot be replicated in your pure-text transcription.

Superscript characters:

Here is how you should adapt superscript abbreviations:

Original     Transcription

ye                the
Dr.              Dr.
Mr.             Mr.
Mssrs.          Mssrs.
&c               etc.
Jun.r           Junior

Common English names frequently are abbreviated. For example, William appears often as W.m and John and Johnathan as J.on or or Jon.n.

If there is any doubt about a name, do your best to decipher the name; write it into the transcription and follow it with a tag indicating uncertainty (see above).

The English “long s”:

Handwritten English script in the 18th century commonly used the “long s” — it looks like this ʃ or this ʄ — sometimes alone, sometimes in combination with a standard letter  s.

Do not use it. Substitute the standard letter s.

English currency

Many 18th-century financial records will be expressed as English currency or (in rare instances) Pennsylvania pounds.

WARNING: British currency was “decimalized” in 1971, so do not use modern explanations to understand 18th-century currency.

Do not use the pound sign — £ — in currency notations. Use capital L.
The general template is       L pounds. shillings s. pence d.
so that four pounds, three shillings and six pence would be expressed:

L4. 3s. 6d.

In many instances, the template L. s. d. will be maintained even when there is no digit in one or more position. Use a dash to indicate an empty position. Three shillings and sixpence will be written

L-. 3s. 6d.

and two pounds even will be

L2. -. -.

As we’ve gained experience, there is some additional clarification regarding currency. As much as possible, transcribe as it is notated.

Here are some example pages with good transcriptions:

Tabular accounts

More loose records

There are basic rules though. 

  • Sections are always punctuated by periods: L4. 3s. 6d.
  • The s. and d. initials are optional, so L4.3.6 is fine (with or without spaces).
  • For zeros, you can use zeros, or dashes, or just an extra period.
    L4.0.6, L4.0s.6d., L4.-.6 are all the same.
  • When writing shillings, you should always include pence, even if there are none (use a dash).
    6s. 3d. or 6s. – or 6. –

Columns and tables

Some documents, especially financial reports and ledgers, contain tabular material and columns.

Transcribe this material in a way that is easy to comprehend but don’t try to make it appear identical to the original.

Use spaces — not tabs — to align columns so that they can be totaled easily.

Use tags to indicate any errors or anomalies.