Paleography resources

This selection of resources below can guide you through the process of deciphering the handwriting of historical documents, or what is sometimes called paleography. These resources provide useful overviews of historical letter-writing conventions including format and abbreviations, common transcription mistakes, and some even offer resources that allow you to practice your transcription skills. Having a look at one or several of these resources is a great first step for new users, and can even sharpen some the skills of more seasoned transcribers. 

Writing in the 18th Century, George Washington’s Mount Vernon

This webpage from Mount Vernon provides a history of literacy, penmanship, and other handwriting conventions in the 18th century. 

A Short Introduction to Paleography, Special Collections, University of Southampton

A brief and useful overview of how to read and decipher 18th century handwriting put together by the Special Collections staff at the University of Southampton including common handwriting and abbreviation conventions. 

Palaeography: reading old handwriting, 1500 - 1800,  British National Archives

This guide, put together by the British National Archives, provides a thorough overview of how to read handwriting across four centuries with a number of valuable resources. Most notably, this site hosts a number of tutorials and games in order to practice your transcription skills. 

Transcription Tips, US National Archives

This guide, put together by the US National Archives, has a decidedly American focus on paleography. It includes a selection of documents from the National Archives to illustrate common transcription problems. At the end is a handy set of “clues” that can help you decipher a range of abbreviations and spelling differences. 

How to Read 18th Century British-American Writing, Do History

This transcription guide is part of an early digital project that draws from the research done from the book and movie The Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The transcription tips included here are linked to the diary of Martha Ballard, the midwife mentioned above, and provides a way to learn and practice your paleography skills while learning a bit about the life of one early American woman in the process.

Study Guide: Colonial Era Handwriting, Indian Converts, Reed College 

This transcription guide is very interactive and is grounded in a text first published in 1727 that details the lives of four generations of Wampanoag Indians living in Martha’s Vineyard and their interactions and relationships with white colonists, particularly as it relates to Christian conversion. Each section of this guide includes interactive portions that test your understanding of handwriting, abbreviations, common words and other elements drawn from the text.