So youâ€™ve found what you think might be your ancestor in the census. The problem is, when you view the image, what you find sends your heart plummeting. The image is a) too dark, b) too light, or c) looks like a chimpanzee with writerâ€™s cramp wrote it. So whatâ€™s a twenty-first-century family historian to do? Letâ€™s explore some options.
Many of the records we use today were microfilmed when that technology was in its infancy. So itâ€™s no wonder we run across faded images or dark, hard-to-read records. Photo-editing tools are great for optimizing record images that are in digital format. I use Photoshop Elements, but many of the photo-editing programs out there have the same or similar options. Here are a few ideas for sprucing up those difficult to decipher images:
Darken highlights. I had a really faint 1910 census entry for my great-great-grandmother. Using the â€œDarken Highlightsâ€ function that is available in the Quick Fix mode, I was able to make the image much more readable. In this first set you canÂ see theÂ before and after images. Click on the image to enlarge it.Â The â€œbeforeâ€ image is in the center so that you can compare it with both of the edited images Iâ€™ve posted.
Invert. Another option for lighter images is to invert the colors (i.e., the background would change to black with white writing on it).Â Again, click on the first set of images to see the enlarged example.Â
Lighten Shadows. Another census image, for my Dyer family, had the family enumerated on the bottom of the page. The corner was very dark and writing from the other side of the page bled through. I used the Lighten Shadows tool and it helped remove some of the darkness. You can also play around with exposure tools to help clear out a little more of the â€œclutter.â€ Click on the second set of images to see this example.
Crop. This wonâ€™t really enhance readability, but by cropping black edges off of digitized images, you can save a ton of ink when you print a copy for your files.
Save a Copy of the Original
Whenever Iâ€™m editing a record image, I make a copy of it first. I always save a file with the original image and then save it with the same title, adding â€œ_editâ€ at the end. Sometimes the edits will help one portion of the record, but make another portion harder to read so itâ€™s good to have that original to refer to.
When Itâ€™s the Handwriting
When weâ€™re dealing with â€œchimpanzee writing,â€ there are low-tech options that can help us decipher letters and numbers. The easiest is to compare the character in question–whether itâ€™s a number or a letter–to others on the page that are more readable.
At Ancestry on each of the main census search pages, youâ€™ll find a box on the right with a link to a pop-up â€œHandwriting Helpâ€ box. It contains several handwriting samples for every letter in the alphabet and by leaving it up in the background, you can compare the samples to the records as you are searching.
Also look for marks that are carried down from the line above or up from the line below. If the bottom of a fancy J spills down and overlaps the name you are trying to interpret, you may be misled. So with hard to decipher names or words, look at the lines above and below too.
Another technique is to trace the letter. Sometimes retracing the path of the enumeratorâ€™s pen may give you that â€œAha!â€ moment.
Some commonly misinterpreted letters include:
- T and F
- J, G, and Y
- I and J
- K and R
- O and Q
- P and R
- U and W
(From The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, ed. Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking.)
Do you have a special trick for hard-to-read records? Please share it with us in the Comments section below.
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.