New Resource: “Documents for Genealogy and Local History”

11 Jun 2013

Government agencies, private repositories, and other groups are putting images of original records online in droves. Doing this is making it so much easier for us to research. It has also brought a new emphasis to being able to read and understand these documents.

The History Press has come out with a new book by Bruce Durie to help with this process. The almost-450-page Understanding Documents for Genealogy and Local History is brimming with information to help researchers work with old records. Although the primary focus is on documents from England, Scotland, and Wales, the techniques will help with old documents from any of the countries that were part of the British Empire.


Understanding Documents


The books is divided into three parts: Reading the Documents, The Documents, and Glossaries. Reading the Documents is perhaps the most valuable section. It is subdivided into seven chapters of background information that researchers need to understand in order to be able to read old records.

The first chapter goes into great detail about transcribing and paleography. After review the best practices for transcriptions, the rest of the chapter deals with handwriting. From hands to letters, abbreviations, to numbers, the book explains concepts and provides numerous examples for each to help users read documents.

The biggest part of the first section, however, is dedicated to Latin. Many early documents are written in Latin. The obvious ones are church records, but many legal documents were also written in Latin. Those who learned classical Latin in school may have a leg up, but the early-modern Latin in which the documents genealogists use are written is very different from classical Latin. This section provides everything you need as a genealogist to understand the language.

Additional chapters explain more fundamentals of records: Dates and Calendars; Money, Coinage, Weight and Measure; Inscriptions and Gravestones; Heraldic Documents and Artefacts; and Gaelic Words in Scots and English.

Part II provides more than one hundred pages of examples of records from Scotland, England, and Wales. Many of these records, such as Old Parish Registers, wills, indentures, and deeds, are records you might be familiar with Others, such as entails, sasines, retours, fines, final concords, and Manorial documents, will likely be new to you. Each chapter includes explanations and as well as examples of originals, as well as transcriptions.

Part III contains three valuable glossaries:

  • Latin and Scots: Legal and Genealogical Dictionary
  • Latin: Glossary of Forms of First Names and Surnames
  • Latin: Glossary of Place Names

As you get better and better at reading records, you will to turn to these glossaries time and again to help you.

I purchased a copy of this book when I was in London at Who Do You Think You Are? Live! in February when it made its debut. It is now available on for £12.80, or on for US $26.20. It will be money very well spent.