General Instructions for Transcription and Review

Please review the instructions for transcribing and reviewing projects on our site. You may also wish to download a printable instructions sheet, or use our "Transcribing Quick Guide" and "Reviewing Quick Guide." And be sure to check out our FAQs page for additional tips. Reach out to our team anytime with questions.


How the Process Works

How the Process Works

We seek to balance quality and speed with our transcription process - which of course is still evolving as we continue to develop this service. At the moment, this is how our system works:

  1. Anyone can start transcribing or add to a transcription of a document. Transcribe part or all of a document and click "save" so that other volunteers can help complete the page.
  2. Once a volunteer decides they've "finished" and the page is ready for review, a different volunteer (who must have an account on the site) can review the transcription and either send it back for edits or complete the transcription.
  3. The finished transcript is sent to the Smithsonian, where it may be used immediately, or undergo additional work.

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How to Transcribe

Type What You See

Our main goal is to create text that mirrors this document. Write down words and paragraphs as you see them.

Please preserve original spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word order, even if it is grammatically incorrect.

You may include the correct spelling of a word in double brackets next to the incorrectly spelled word, or in the notes field of the respective transcription page, but this is optional.

Ex: Abigale Adams [[Abigail Adams]].

One exception: if a word is hyphenated because it goes across two lines, type it out as one word. See example page.

Keep it simple

Our goal is to improve readability and searchability and we want to avoid cluttering the pages--don't worry about formatting.

Minimize the use of double brackets [[ ]] to describe what you see, think about readability and searchability. For math or columned format, avoid using the double brackets as much as possible, and make sure to review the specific instructions included for the project you are working on. See "advanced instructions" to learn more about transcribing columned data, and other more complicated content.

Do not indicate font style, underlined, or bolded or italicized text.

In order to simplify transcription even further, we are asking that you no longer indicate pre-printed text or signatures with brackets. You also do not need to indicate the start and end of a page with [[start page]] [[end page]]. These things should ONLY be done if a project specifically instructs you to.

Screenshot of a transcription project page without unnecessary formatting and markup.

Don't worry about denoting superscript numbers, dates, or words, such as 2nd, or McDonald, which include special characters or ^ symbols. They should simply be written as McDonald, regardless of any superscript written in the original text.

Insertions in the text---If you come across a word that has been inserted into a sentence or phrase in the original text, please bring it into the sentence and type it in the order you would read it aloud. There is no need to use caret symbols or brackets to indicate an inserted word. See example page.

Screenshot of a transcription page demonstrating how to transcribe text insertions.

Deleted words or words struck out in the original text---Please write "strikethrough" or "crossed-out," when appropriate, in double brackets before and after the word or phrase that has been struck out or deleted.

For example: I really [[strikethrough]] hate [[/strikethrough]] don't like the smell of rotten eggs. OR I really [[crossed-out]] hate [[/crossed-out]] don't like the smell of rotten eggs. See example page as well.

There are special instructions for marginalia(additional notes, etc. on the document), tables and columned data, and transcribing ditto marks, which you can find in the advanced instructions.

It's ok if you don't have time to complete the entire transcription. Even adding a sentence or two makes it easier for the next person to work on it. Often two or more volunteers need to work together to finish a transcription. Every bit helps.

Every project is different, please read the project description before you get started. Also pay attention to any notes left on a transcription page, and please DO NOT DELETE any previous notes left by other volunteers. These help us track changes, record additional information about collections, and review questions.


When you see a sketch, picture, or stamp/seal, please use the word "image" or "stamp", etc. placed in double brackets: [[image]] [[stamp]]. If there are any captions, or text associated with the image, please transcribe them. See an example page.

Screenshot of a transcription project page demonstrating how to transcribe and note images.

If the project instructions do not ask for image descriptions, you may choose to describe the image or images in the notes field of each respective page. This is optional. See an example page.

Please be aware as well, that some images include descriptions on the back of the photograph, displayed in the preceding transcription image. Be sure to check this. If this is the case, please indicate that an image description exists on the following page. Ex: [[image--see next page for caption]]. See an example page.

Save Frequently

Transcription can be hard work, so make sure you save frequently (every couple of minutes). Click the [Save] button located below the transcription form to save your progress. Remember that no one can edit a page if you are working on it (you should see "Locked" in blue on your upper right screen). If you want to move on, you can click the orange [Complete & Mark for Review] button or [Save] and use the navigation buttons above the transcription field to change pages. The system will release your page to others to edit if you have not clicked on any buttons ([Save] or [Complete & Mark for Review] ) for 15 minutes. So, save frequently to keep the page to yourself if you are still working on it.

If You Find a Word You Can't Quite Read

Please make a note using double brackets [[ ]] like this: [[good guess?]] or simply [[?]]. See example page below. Save your work and you can continue transcribing the rest of the item. Sometimes a word is nearly impossible to decipher (even for the best of us!), so 1-2 [[?]] remaining on a page is acceptable for it to be marked "Complete". If a page has been mostly transcribed but still includes 2 or more [[?]], however, please DO NOT submit this page as "Complete", but instead leave it in the "transcription" or "review" stage so that other volunteers can continue working on it. Feel free to reach out to us and your fellow volunpeers by leaving a question in the notes field of the transcription page, through the "feedback tab" on the side of the page, on social media, or by emailing us directly.

Screenshot of a transcription page demonstrating how to indicate unknown words by typing [[?]].

Special Characters

It can be more challenging to key in special characters, so just do the best you can. You can always leave a word un-transcribed and signal to other transcribers and reviewers that more work needs to be done by typing [[?]] in place of a word or part of a word needing special characters. Here's a list of shortcuts for of some of the most frequently encountered special characters (for PCs):

  • ç - Alt 1159
  • ü - Alt 1153
  • ñ - Alt 164
  • á - Alt 0225
  • é - Alt 130
  • è - Alt 138
  • ¢ - Alt 0162
  • — (em dash) - Alt 0151

Image Manipulation Tools

While we make our best effort to ensure images are properly scaled, rotated, and ready for transcription, sometimes rotating, zooming, panning, or flipping an image may be required. We have provided a set of options in a toolbar which appears when you move your mouse cursor over the image (see image below).

Image demonstrating the eight buttons in the image viewer toolbar

The following image manipulations are supported (listed in order from left to right in the toolbar):

Image Action
White circle with white plus sign in center.
Zoom In
White circle with white minus sign in center.
Zoom Out
White arrow curved to the right
Reset Image to Original
Four white arrows starting in the center and pointing to each corner
Full Screen
Vertical triangle on the left, horizontal triangle on right with bent arrow pointing to the left
Rotate Image 90 degrees to the left
Horizontal triangle on the left, vertical triangle on right with bent arrow pointing to the right
Rotate Image 90 degrees to the right
Vertical triangle on the left, vertical triangle on right with curved arrow pointing in both directions
Flip Image Horizontally
White question mark

Marking for Review

Please only hit the orange "Complete and Mark for Review" button when the entire page has been transcribed. You are welcome to simply transcribe a single word, sentence, or the whole page, but if the page is not completely transcribed, please only hit "Save" so other volunteers know there is still transcription work to be done.

Screenshot of a transcription project page demonstrating how to transcribe tables.

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How to Review

When a volunteer completes a transcription and marks it for review, it’s good to get a second pair of eyes on it. Here's how to review a transcription:

  • As a reviewer, you must have an account on the Transcription Center, which you can create here.
  • Be sure to read through the General and Advanced instructions so you can identify mistakes in the transcription. Review the document for accuracy and completeness.
  • Read the entire transcription and carefully compare it against the original text.

If the Transcription is Complete and Ready:

Click the [Mark as Complete] button (green). The item will then be marked "Completed and pending approval."

Screenshot of a transcription project page demonstrating how to mark a reviewed page complete.

If You Feel There are Errors that Need to be Corrected:

  • Click the [Reopen for Editing] button (red).
  • Make edits and modify the transcription to match the page and fix mistakes. Remember to avoid editing the original spelling and grammar.
  • After you have made your changes, Click the [Complete and Mark for Review] button - then it will require a new volunteer to review.

If you come across a "COMPLETE and PENDING APPROVAL" project that contains errors and needs further editing, you can reach out the TC team by clicking on the "feedback button" on the side of each project page, or emailing us directly at Be sure to include the URL link for the page in question, and the TC team will respond by reopening the page for transcription and review.

For further tips on reviewing, check out volunpeer Beth Graham's post about her process.

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Advanced Instructions and Tips

Find more information on projects requiring special guidelines, along with  instructions for transcribing marginalia, tables and columned data, and ditto marks, in our advanced instructions and tips.

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