What Is Document Transcription?

Mary McMahon

Document transcription converts paper documents to an editable digital format. This may be done for readability, conversion to digital files, or a variety of other reasons. Firms are available to perform this task for a fee, or companies can handle their transcription needs internally. For certain kinds of documents, special handling may be required in the conversion process because of a document's sensitive nature or age. In these situations, it may be necessary to use a specialty service.

Audio cassettes may be used with transcriber machines.
Audio cassettes may be used with transcriber machines.

This process can be done in several ways. Some companies scan documents and use a program to convert the printed information into an editable digital form. A technician reviews the machine transcription to correct any errors. These can include character swaps or substitutions, shifted fields, and other problems that may arise. The computer program may be able to learn from the corrections and apply this to future document transcription tasks to reduce the error rate.

Manual transcription may involve typing the contents of a document into a word processing program.
Manual transcription may involve typing the contents of a document into a word processing program.

Another option is manual transcription, where a typist works from the original document or a high quality facsimile to generate a fresh digital copy. This can be necessary when documents include cramped or unusual handwriting that a computer might have trouble with, or special characters that are not commonly used. Historical documents in English, for example, may contain several characters not used in Modern English that a computer would have difficulty interpreting.

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Historical documents can require special care because transcribers want to avoid damage to the original. Scanning and similar activities can expose papers to ultraviolet light, and must be performed with caution to preserve the integrity of the original. Transcriptionists also need to keep their hands clean and may wear gloves while handling the material. Digitization through document transcription can make historical records more accessible to researchers and the general public; a facility could, for example, upload historic letters to its website for anyone with an interest to peruse.

Government paperwork can be subjected to document transcription. This can include historic records like old census data as well as newer documents that are not available in a digitized form. It may be necessary to use a certified transcriptionist because of the sensitivity of the information, to ensure that documents are not altered when they are entered in digital form. People who plan to use digitized documents from their home country for activities like citizenship applications may want to ask a government official about any steps that need to be taken to validate the document transcription.

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