Presenting Records of Monumental Inscriptions

An overview of types of presentation and compatibility

Traditionally, records of MIs have been typed up and bound into a publication, together with some sort of index. There has, however, been little in the way of any “standardisation” in presentation.  The main consideration being to “get it down” on paper so that it serves as a reference to others. This in itself is of course, no bad thing. However, many of the ideas relating to the presentation were done “pre-computer” age, and even now, many people do not have computers – surprisingly, the many hard-working people who have taken the trouble to record the MIs.

The next stage in presentation, because it is so inexpensive, and easy to reproduce, was the microfiche. A single piece of film onto which had been copied a publication for a whole church graveyard, or in most cases, for several graveyards – such is the capacity of one single fiche. The principle was very commendable indeed. It enabled anyone with a fiche reader to purchase a whole volume of MI transcriptions. There is only one problem. There are even less people out there with fiche readers than there are with computers, although, in fairness, most genealogists could probably gain access to one.

Then we have computer based records, which themselves fall into two main categories: a word processed file, perhaps laid out in columns using tabs, or a database file. The word processed file has the advantage of “looking” like a paper publication, and has a “find” routine to search for records; but the database is the king of them all, in that it can find many records at the same time, by means of simple search filters. Surprisingly, few people who own a computer learn to use a database. Finally, we have this “new” medium of the Internet world wide web on which to make electronic publications. Clearly this is the way of the future. There can be little doubt of this, and many major newspapers are now publishing “on-line” in addition to on paper. Unfortunately, at this moment, all of us are not ready for the future. The number of those with access to the Internet is growing at a phenomenal rate (with an estimated 1 million people interested in genealogy having access to the net), but if that is the case, then there must still be many more millions of genealogists who do not have access to even a computer.

Electronic publishing will come to us all eventually as we move into the 21st century, and we will begin to appreciate the great advantages of being able to read changed and updated information daily. In comparison, paper records, whilst arguably more stable and long lasting, once printed are “fixed” until the next update of the publication. Unfortunately, most paper publications do not ever reach a second edition to contain any updates or corrections of errors. (If this electronic publication needs updating, it can be done in seconds).  Paper publications are comparatively expensive to produce, and a large print run is usually required to make them worth while publishing in the first place.

Clearly, any one method of presenting transcriptions of monumental inscriptions will not suit everyone. We are left with the need to use all of the above mentioned methods if we are to make the records available to the widest audience of researchers.  We are at an unusual place in time in the history of publications. We need all of the available options, and are not yet (quite) ready for purely electronic publications.

The most important thing, however, is that at this crossroads in time, we do need to make our publications easily adaptable to all of the different media at the same time!  Printed records alone are not good enough, and at the other extreme, neither are electronic publications. What we must do, is consider a method of publication which can be changed most easily into any of the forms we have discussed. Writing and producing records, (in our case for monumental inscriptions) must be done in such a way that it can be accessed as:

  • printed matter
  • microfiche
  • computer based (word processor and database)
  • electronic publishing

…without having to re-write it each time!

The only way to do this is to use the computer as the tool. Furthermore, the data should be entered in such a way that it can be easily edited and changed into different formats, not only for different types of software, but also for different types of computers with different operating systems.

Fortunately we do have a “standard” for data interchange. It has been around (in computing terms) for years. Almost since the start of computing itself. It is called the American Standard for Computer Information Interchange. ASCII for short. (So that’s what it stands for!)  We owe a great debt to those who had the foresight, so many years ago, to implement this standard. Putting it simply, any data which is stored in ASCII format, can be imported into any word processor, spreadsheet, or database on any type of computer, from the humble Sinclair Spectrum or BBC – (I wonder if anyone is still using one of these? – sure you are!) – to the latest all-singing, all dancing bells and whistles Pentium PC or Apple Mac. ASCII rules!  Every word processor, database, spreadsheet or computer ever invented can export an ASCII file. Furthermore, the standard (still) for transferring text information electronically over the internet, be it by e-mail or web pages, is ASCII. It has to be. That is the only way that we can all read it. The “disadvantage” of ASCII is that it can only contain real text and numbers, abc123. It cannot contain “codes” for formatting the text, such as underline, bold, large, page layout, and so on. The modern generation of word processors can do this of course,  (and to a certain extent, so can the html code used to produce this page) but ASCII text must contain pure alpha-numeric characters only, and not even the “extended” character set such as the UK pound character (£ – I used a fiddle to be able to display this!), or Greek characters etc.

So, this being the case, we can produce our documents using a computer, which can be printed (then copied to micro-fiche too), used in a computer word processor, database or spreadsheet, or published electronically. All we need to do now is ensure that the data can be easily converted from one type of software to another, and that is all done in the way that it is formatted and entered in the first place. Just about every computer course or qualification has the words somewhere in its criteria: “Enter data in a way that makes it easy to edit”.  This is the key to it all.

If we are aware of this when we type our records into the computer, then we will have succeeded in making it transportable.

To recap:

we want our information to be able to be:

  • printed
  • used in a word processor
  • used in a database
  • used in a spreadsheet
  • used for electronic publication

There is a “knack” to making data transferable between a word processor, database and a spreadsheet. Sure it has to be in ASCII format, but it also needs to be in a format that can be easily recognised by a spreadsheet or database.

A database or spreadsheet uses data in “fields”, i.e. separate “chunks” of information separated by either commas or tabs, in a word processor:

Date Surname Firstname Place

(separated by tabs)

The standard for transferring data between databases and spreadsheets on different software and computers, is usually a CSV file containing ASCII text.  However, to enable the data also to be used by a word processor, a tab delimited file works really nicely! Fortunately, both a database and a spreadsheet can accept a tab delimited file.

Simple then. We must produce our records in either:

  • A wordprocessor (with tab layout)
  • A database
  • A spreadsheetThe first thing you must learn with your word processor, is how to save the document as an ASCII text file. All word processors can do it! When you select to save, you will be offered the option to save as “text only”. Saving as a “word processor document” is not the same thing! A word processor document file contains lots of non-ASCII codes for formatting the page layout etc.The first thing you must learn with your spreadsheet or database program, is to learn how to save the data to disk as a tab separated  ASCII text file.

    Then we have complete compatibility between different types and manufacturers’ software and different types of computers

The permanence of records and data

The common denominator in our types of publication should always be the paper based publication.  There has, since computers were invented, been the concern that computer data is not permanent. Much as we would like to think that this is not the case, unfortunately it is true. The format of computer data changes, and the computers themselves change. Furthermore data on disk is not permanent. It degenerates. Sure, paper degenerates too, but at no-where near the same rate as computer data. Your paper record, kept carefully, will last for hundreds of years. Computer data may last 5 years before it either degenerates or the computer and software to read it is no longer available. Do you remember records, you know, those 12″ diameter black plastic disks which revolved at 78 revolutions per minute, and which were read by a needle which trundled over its surface? (As a friend once commented, as he grew older – and wiser – “I used to revolve at 78 but now I’m down to 331/3″). How many people still have equipment which can read this data? Even worse, recordings on a wax cylinder? Or those made on a length of wire?  How many people still have computer data stored on audio cassette tapes? 8″ diameter floppy disks – or even 51/4” floppy disks for that matter – with no computer to read them! The computer and software which I used to first record my family history stuff (which I still have on disk), is long gone – 7 years! – that software won’t even install on my Pentium PC!

Paper is very permanent compared with computer data!

The format of a paper based publication

The common denominator to all of our data must still be the paper publication. We must enter the data in such a way that it can be easily exported into other formats, for example, for use in a database, spreadsheet or electronic publication on CD or the Internet.

The key is the way that we enter data of the records into the word processor. So first we should consider the format of the publication, (the way it is laid out).

I found that by entering the details into a table in the word processor, it was possible not only to make it look good, but also to use the information in various other ways, export it to other software, and index it very easily too! (I used Microsoft Word as the word processor).

The information was laid out as in the following example, in the various columns of the table:

 Ref  Surname  Firstname  Date  Year  Age  Details
 N1  Neep  John  11 June  1830  78   In / (left)Memory of / John  Neep / who departed / this life /
June 11th 1830 / Aged 78  years / He was a good  husband /
and honest man / and good  neighbour / – / Long was I with
pain opprest / which wore my  strength away / which made
me wish for heavenly rest / that  never can decay
Memory of / Elizabeth / his Wife  / who departed / this life /
Jany 4th 1837 / aged 73 years /  – /A wife so kind a mother
dear / A faithful friend lies  sleeping here / She liv’d in love
and died in peace / In hopes  her joys will never cease
(Palethorpe, Nott.)
 N1  NEEP  Elizabeth  4


 1837  73

Note that the second person noted on this headstone, Elizabeth, is entered on a separate row in the table, but with the common grave reference number. Entries in the records are in grave index number order.

In printed form, it looks very neat indeed. I leave in a single horizontal line (the table border) between each grave, so that it looks like this when printed.

Once all the records for the church gravestones have been entered in this way, it is a really simple task to create a names index!

Simply highlight the first 6 columns of the table, click on copy, and then paste them into a new document. The new document will have the same table but without the description column. Next, get the word processor to sort them alphabetically, first on column 2 (surnames) and then on column 3 (firstnames), and you have a perfect alphabetical index ! It looks something like this:

D4 BRETT Florence 14 Oct 1914 63
D4 BRETT John 12 May 1891 40
D3 DUFTY Joseph 5 Mar 1839 13
D2 DUFTY Susan Martha 29 Feb 1920 95
D2 DUFTY Thomas 13 Aug 1888 70
D1 DUFTY William 27 Dec 1847 67
N3 HEATHCOTE John 19 Sep 1837 64
N12 MILLWARD Elizabeth 5 May 1868 79
N12 MILLWARD Hannah 25 Feb 1857 60
N12 MILLWARD Mary 3 Apr 1856 32
N5 NEEP Charles 7 Sep 1872 35
N1 NEEP Elizabeth 4 Jan 1837 73
N4 NEEP Elizabeth 28 Apr 1840 37
N1 NEEP John 11 Jun 1830 78
N2 NEEP John 30 Mar 1829 5m

In printed form, it is now very easy to look up a name and then next to it, see the relevant grave reference number.

Your final document for publication should ideally be securely bound in some way, with a good card cover, and with the index at either the front or back of the document. Don’t forget to include your plan of the graveyard, so that graves can be identified easily.

Exporting the information to a spreadsheet or database

A table in Microsoft Word has the facility to convert a table to text. This is the ideal tool to use in creating a file to export, because the word processor asks how you want the columns of the table handled. The ideal way is to just let it create tabs between each column boundary.

The result is a tab delimited file. Save it as a text file.  This tab delimited file can be imported straight into any database or spreadsheet! The task is done!