12 March 2013

Book Review: Understanding Documents for Genealogy and Local History

Title: Understanding Documents for Genealogy and Local History
Author: Bruce Durie
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: The History Press (February 19, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0752464647
ISBN-13: 978-0752464640
Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds

This is a book for the serious or would-be serious genealogist. As explained in the introduction it is aimed at those who have exhausted birth, marriage, death and census records, typically now available online with transcriptions and name indexing, and are now faced with interpreting manuscripts if they are to make further progress.
Part 1: Reading the Documents aims to give basic understanding. Chapter 1, 21 pages, is a fairly gentle initiation into how letter were formed at different times in the UK and how to systematically go about a transcription. Chapter 2, with the simple title Latin is heavy lifting, 53 pages covering the elements of Latin grammar. If the word declension brings back painful school-day memories be prepared. The remaining five chapters, much shorter, cover dates and calendars; money, coinage, weight and measure, inscriptions and gravestones, heraldic documents and artefacts and; Gaelic words.
Part 2: The Documents, in 12 chapters, 130 pages, covers various types of documents commonly encountered. Half of the chapters relate to specifically Scottish documents. Each explains the documents and gives worked example of a transcription.
Part 3: Glossaries is in three chapters, 187 pages: Latin and Scots legal and genealogical glossary; Latin glossary of forms or first names and surnames and; Latin glossary of Place names.
I never took Latin, but my impression is that in Durie's concept of the world the ability to master the skills covered in the book represent a type of pons asinorum. Only a minority of amateur genealogists will likely have the aptitude or fortitude to fully benefit from this book. What of the rest of us?
Some early records can be deciphered with a bit of sleuthing; the content will provide useful reference material. With anything more complicated chances are discouragement will set in, perhaps at the mere thought of having to wrestle with an indenture or manorial court record. Key evidence to push your ancestry further back will remain out of reach unless you can access professional expertise  or a kindly friend.
It may be that help is on the horizon. tranScriptorium is a European Union initiative aiming "to develop innovative, efficient and cost-effective solutions for the indexing, search and full transcription of historical handwritten document images, using modern, holistic Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) technology." If successful will we see the commercial adoption adding to the corpus of records accessible to the genealogist as companies run out of more accessible material to add to their databases?

This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

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