Saturday, August 18, 2012

Back From Being On The Road; Glad I Had The Digital Voice Recorder

Harrison Co. Court House 
in Clarksburg, WV 

It’s no easy feat to get yourself re-organized after a week-long research trip in West Virginia courthouses.  

After the customary unpacking, getting caught up with the personal and business email and the handling the accumulated business stuff, it’s finally time to sort out all those notes, photocopies and photos.  Then, it’ll be time to transcribe stuff, record-link the new stuff to the old stuff and finally see just what it all means.

First off, the photos of documents are at a minimum for this trip.  Why is that, you ask? Well that’s because all the county clerks’ offices we visited had prominently-posted signs warning that cameras of any kind – including cell phone cameras – were no longer permitted in the record room.  Usually, that warning was next to a sign advising that copies could be had for $1.50 for each of the first two and then for a buck thereafter.  Therefore, copies of uncomplicated, mostly boiler-plate deeds could easily cost about three or four bucks.  When you have a list of several hundred early 19th century deeds in one county, like we had, that can add up to big money pretty quickly. Do the math.

Needless to say, we went back to our research roots and abstracted or transcribed stuff. Mostly – but not entirely - on paper.  With pencils. Just like we used to do in 1965. With a couple of exceptions.

In Harrison County, this camera ban in the County Clerk’s Record Room seems to have gone into effect sometime in the summer of 2011. Strangely, the staff of the clerk of the Circuit Court one floor above took the opposite position about copies.  It was okay to take non-flash pictures with a digital camera or cell phone, but they would not make actual photocopies.  Plus, there was no charge to use the camera. Go figure.

That "cameras okay" position in Circuit Court enabled me to get this great image from a packet of documents that concerned an 1807 Chancery Court lawsuit between Isaac Hinkle and his cousin Jacob Elsworth and his wife.  It's a summons issued to William Thornhill and William Patton to serve as witnesses in the case.

In a few cases, especially when time was at a premium or I had severe writer’s cramp, I decided to use my trusty Olympus VN - 4100PC digital voice recorder. The recorder is small – about 4 inches by 1.5 inches – and thin, and fits neatly in my shirt pocket. As long as you don’t mind having people look at you funny (they think you’re talking to yourself, mostly), it’s a reasonable alternative to writing stuff down, especially if the thought of abstracting 50 or so deeds on a court house visit seems daunting.

Plus, if you do it right, it’s not very obtrusive or offensive, even if there are a lot of other people working in the record room or research facility.

Generally, when I come to a document I want to transcribe or abstract, I discreetly turn the recorder on, stick it in my shirt pocket, and start talking in a loud whisper.  When I finish, I reach into my pocket and push the “off” button.

On this trip, I tried not to be any louder than the under-thirty title searchers who were bantering back and forth about their last Saturday night dates. (“He’s was just, you know, so full of himself, you know, and I had to buy all my own shots and like, you know, the bar bill was nearly forty bucks and I swear I only had three or maybe four drinks . . .”)

Using a digital tape recorder to collect information is a skill that takes a bit of time to develop. 

For example, if you’re doing an actual document transcription, it’s important to remember to note the spelling of all names (personal and place) and any other words that are spelled in a non-standard way.   Plus, you need to remember to actually SAY the punctuation marks, paragraph and end-of-line breaks, capitalized words and all the other minutiae that you’ll want to appear when you actually type up the document in question.  

Most important of all, you MUST remember to provide yourself with a proper citation so that a week or so later, you’ll be able to tell where you actually found the document that you spent time dictating.  Was it on microform, an original book, a typed transcription or what?  Page number?  Book number?  Physical location? You know the drill.  You know what you need. Unless you note it while you’re doing it, you WILL most certainly forget.  Trust me on this.

In addition, because it’s a lot harder than it seems, it’s always a good idea to practice this voice recorder technique ahead of time with a couple of short but somewhat complicated documents until you get the hang of it.  After all, you don’t want to travel 600 miles from home, dictate stuff into a digital recorder and then drive all the way back only to learn that you failed to note the book and page number of a will, or the spelling of a witness name.  (Fortunately, I learned this skill many years ago when I was blessed with a secretary who was a whiz at shorthand, but lousy when it came to punctuation and paragraphing. )

Bottom line: a $50 - $75 investment in a digital voice recorder that can store over 100 hours’ worth of files  can be well worth it for a genealogist caught in a situation where cameras are banned and copies are expensive.

Next time, after I get through listening to and typing up some of my “sotto voce” recorded abstracts, I’ll tell you about some of the more interesting things I found.


  1. I just bought a digital voice recorder before going on a recent trip. I was able to record family telling stories, but had not thought of this use. Thanks for this great idea! I haven't begun to transcribe yet. Do you have advice about transcribing what has been recorded?

  2. Yes, actually. First, do the transcription sooner rather than later, because it's easy to forget about it if you put it off (sound files tend to be "invisible" when they're still on the voice recorder). Second, if you can download the sound files on your computer, you'll find that they're easier to stop and start while you're transcribing. Third, when you're recording and then transcribing people telling stories, be sure to write a synopsis for your own (and others') future reference. Identify exactly who is talking, about what, where and when, etc. A short bio of the speaker is a good idea as well. It's all great fun once you get used to the equipment.

    1. I have put this off for over a month - but now I'm glad I did since I have some advice to follow. I am so not a techy person, but I'm learning! First to get files onto the computer... I think it will be fun once I get started and get to hear the stories again. Thanks for your advice!

  3. I have that recorder I use for recording our society board meeting. Although I move the file to my computer to playback, the recorder has the ability to playback at different speeds. The directions are on page 36 in the manual. I think this would be better when transcribing word for word.

  4. Yes, I agree that the "slow playback" feature on the recorder is helpful for transcription and I've used it myself. Of course, you then always need to remember to have your computer AND your recorder in the same place at the same time. For me, that's sometimes a challenge...

  5. Hi Meldon,
    Just out of curiosity, did you find out the reason for the camera ban? Would it have been okay to use a portable scanner like the flippal, or were they worried about damage to the documents?
    Thanks in advance for the info!

  6. This "no cameras" ban is to guarantee a continuous revenue stream from professional title searchers - who are the primary users of recorded deed info in clerks' offices these days. That's why copies (self service) were $1.50 each for the first two, and $1.00 each thereafter. The title searchers I witnessed were making about 10 copies an hour all day long and in some county clerk's offices, there were over a dozen searchers working simultaneously. That's a guaranteed revenue stream of about a thousand dollars a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year.
    In a nutshell, that's why all kinds of personal copiers are banned. After watching how searchers handled the books they were copying, it was obvious that "records preservation" was not a major issue.