Sunday, May 9, 2010

How Much History is Lost to Bad Handwriting

Sorry once again for the extended break in posting, but we just finished up the state competition for National History Day here in Kentucky and I have been tied up with the preparation and hosting of that event. If you don't know about National History Day, but do know a young person (grade 6-12) that loves history, take a few minutes to find out more about this wonderful competition and fill them in. As as Indiana seventh grader (way back) I participated with an exhibit on what else-the Civil War (more specifically Little Round Top at Gettysburg). The theme that year was "Turning Points in History" and I was so excited to move from the district contest at Hanover College to the state Contest at Indiana University (didn't win there though). If you want more information check out their website at

Now back to our regularly scheduled post.

While doing my recent research on Kentuckians reactions to John Brown's raid, the most challenging thing I have encountered is the plethora of bad handwriting in the primary sources I have found. I don't know whether the people that were writing about this event were so upset that they just scratched out their pent up emotions on paper, if they truly had bad penmanship, were poorly educated, or some combination. I have conducted primary source research on a number of topics, in graduate school and independently, that caused me to look over the handwriting of a lot of people, but I have never ran into this many examples of horrible handwriting. And, that got me to much history is lost to bad handwriting?

When I transcribe letters from the original text, by direct observation withe the document or from photocopies, I always try transcribe the whole letter to help better capture the author's line of thought and the context of the letter. But, some of what I have encountered lately leaves me coming back again and again to try to figure out the 150 year old "chicken scratch," and writing "[illegible]" almost as often as complete words....OK, maybe all of it is not that bad, but it has been challenging. For example, in a couple of letters that I found in Virginia governor Wise's papers the author refused to put tails on his d's, so they all ended up looking like a's or o's. Others refuse to use periods or commas or even paragraphs, which of course makes it difficult to tell where the author's thoughts end and start again.

Fresh eyes seem to help, whether from someone new looking at them and making observations, or just taking a break myself for a few minutes and then reading anew. Reading out loud also helps some. I'm glad no one else can easily hear me sometimes, or they might think I was plotting a 21st century slave insurrection or something.

Now, to be fair I have come across a few examples that are a pleasure to read. Not only is the handwriting neat, but the writer actually used punctuation correctly and apparently thought as clearly as they wrote. When reading these "good letters," I don't know how many times I have asked myself, "Why can't they all be like this?" But, then again I am reminded of the phrase my undergraduate Historical Methods professor used to always say, "History is damn hard work."

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