learning to cursive

8 July 2012

Judith Thurman’s recent post at the New Yorker blog on cursive handwriting and the Declaration of Independence reminded me of something I wrote some time ago about my own experiences learning to write and read cursive. Reading it over now, I don’t think schoolkid me would have been sad to see schools decide not to teach cursive anymore.


One of my earliest memories is of being in a shopping cart. This is followed by a memory of being on the floor of a supermarket near a shopping cart, followed by a memory of being in the car, my right arm propped up against the door, on the way to the hospital where my arm was put in a cast.

I’d like to think that being right-handed and breaking my right arm when I was four is the reason handwriting was so difficult for me, but it’s more likely that I simply lacked a bit of coordination at that age. I also had trouble coloring inside the lines and cutting things with scissors along the lines. And I still don’t hold eating utensils correctly. For quite a while, long after the cast came off, I could grip a pencil only with the help of a triangular accessory, but eventually I got the hang of it.

I don’t remember how my printing looked originally; in third or fourth grade we got to cursive. I couldn’t do it. I was given extra worksheets designed to lead me into it: mostly practice with italicization, doing everything but connecting the letters. By fifth grade, when all written assignments had to be in cursive (for reasons completely and utterly unknown to me) I could manage it, but only painfully, slowly, with hideous letters. In junior high they didn’t care about cursive vs. printing: they just wanted writing. I went back to printing, but my printed handwriting had by then taken on the shape of italics. I still print in italics and I still can’t write decent cursive. In English, that is.

One of the things that worried me most about taking Russian before I got to the first day of my first class was learning a new alphabet. One of the things that worried me most about taking Russian after the first day of my first class was learning that Russian handwriting is pretty much all cursive. To my surprise, it turned out that I had little to worry about. My Russian cursive may not be native-writerly, but it is better than my English cursive and it took a lot less time to learn.

It is not uncommon for people working with handwritten documents to run into problems making out what the words say; it is especially difficult when you’re just starting out in research. In the fall term after I first took Russian I began reading 19th century correspondence in English; even worse, the first letters I read weren’t just handwritten, they were faded copies of letters in a letterpress copy book.

I know a number of people who’ve had similar experiences with old handwriting: taking 10, 20 minutes to read a page; wanting to give up; wondering if the 20th century is really the more interesting period; nearly fighting back tears (literally or metaphorically) to finish those first few pages. A fellow grad student a few years ago told me that upon coming across, in the handwritten meeting minutes of some organization in 19th century Germany, a discussion of whether or not to buy a typewriter, she immediately said to herself, sitting there in the archives: “Yes! Buy it, buy it now!”

I’ve sometimes described trying to read old handwriting as a cross between “Wheel of Fortune” and cryptography. If you can make out a few words initially you can use them to decipher the rest. If you know a word is “the”, for instance, you have an idea of what “t”, “h”, and “e” look like – although initial letters often look different than the same letters in the middle of a word. Get enough letters in other words and you can read those words; get enough words in a sentence and you can read the sentence, or most of it.

Proper nouns can be especially difficult; so can initial capitals. Signatures are probably the worst. Once, through the careful examination of m’s, o’s, and w’s in a group of letters written around the same time by the same author, I concluded that a word I’ve seen quoted in publications as “work” most likely is “Mark”: not the most earth-shattering revelation, I know.

As I struggled through those first few letters that day I realized I was running into an additional problem: I had become so accustomed from my summer language course to reading cursive as Russian that I was struggling with the English letters that look like Russian ones. (Example: “m” in Cyrillic script is transliterated as/sounds like “t” in English.) Realizing this, I went up to the main desk at the archives, got a piece of scratch paper, returned to my seat, and set about forming, for the first time since grade school, a cursive list of all the letters of the English alphabet – upper and lower case – which I could then turn to as a reference sheet.

“the library is itself their laboratory and museum”

2 July 2012

From William Coolidge Lane, “The treatment of books according to the amount of their use” (1903):

(emphasis in the original; I have added paragraph breaks for readability)

The question then resolves itself into this: Can a scholar accomplish his work if he has to depend exclusively on bibliographies, the library catalogs, and selected standard works, to learn what material he ought to examine, and is not able to find the books themselves brought together into one or several specific places on the shelves — groups of books, that is to say, which he can run through in searching for his facts or evidence, and can easily recur to from time to time, groups of books in which he is almost sure to find volumes for which he would not have thought of asking, but which would prove to have value; while many others he can dismiss with a glance, though he would have felt obliged to send for them if he found them recorded in the catalog. No catalog record can take the place of a first-hand examination of the book, and it often happens that a moment’s glance at the book will show a trained bookman that there is nothing to his purpose there. The saving of time from this fact alone is an important item in any scholar’s daily work.

From a somewhat careful inquiry in regard to investigations lately in progress in the Harvard College Library, I am convinced that this direct personal access to a classified collection of all the material at hand is of the first importance if profitable work is to be accomplished.

From a description of some of these investigations, it will be seen that in many cases appropriate bibliographies do not exist to which the student may turn for information in regard to his sources. He is going over the ground, that is to say, for the first time, and is making his bibliography as he goes. In other cases the bibliographies which he can use are so extensive and record so much that is out of his reach that an enormous loss of time results simply from sifting out the comparatively small amount of material accessible to him.

The library catalog is of use in some cases. Its use should always supplement search by other means, but often the student’s inquiry is for specific points to be found only by searching through a series of general works, so that he cannot depend upon the catalog for the precise information which he requires.

In fact, the work of a philologist or a historian in searching for new facts or fresh evidence in regard to the subject of his inquiry may be properly compared to that of the naturalist searching in the field for his specimens. The naturalist cannot tell his assistant to go to such and such a stone in such a pasture and bring him from under it a particular beetle. He must himself search from stone to stone on the chance of finding what he wants, and in precisely the same way the literary worker searches from volume to volume for what he seeks. He knows the field in which his facts will be found, as the naturalist knows the habitat of his specimens, but can no more tell in advance in what volume he will find what he wants than the naturalist can foresee under what particular stone he will discover his beetle.

A physicist, to take another example, is studying certain unknown relations in electricity or sound. He refers to books in order to inform himself as to what others have already learned, that he may be guided by their results. His own work, however, is with the instruments of his laboratory, and his use of books is a supplementary matter.

A writer on economics, on the other hand, like the physicist, must know the results of others labors as recorded in books, but unlike him, books also form the main field of his investigation, for the facts which he seeks are for the most part to be found in print.

Scientists, who thus find the material of their studies in nature, and refer to books mainly for the records of previous discovery, often fail to recognize the fact that to the students of history, literature, philology, economics, etc. — to the students, that is to say, of human expression and accomplishment— books are themselves the very material of their study, and are not merely the record of what others have discovered before them (like the chemical journals and the transactions of scientific societies).

Books are, with architecture, sculpture, and painting the only tangible evidence of what men have been, and how they lived and expressed themselves. For the students of these subjects, the library is itself their laboratory and museum[*], and should be used in the same way that laboratories and museums are used by the scientists. Its resources should be as conveniently and systematically arranged as are the contents of the scientist’s workrooms. A museum that stored its birds, its insects, its fishes, and its reptiles packed indiscriminately together because they would thus occupy less room, or that expected an inquirer to know in advance on which specimens he would find a particular kind of parasite growing, would be as reasonably administered as a library in which a reader, seeking to trace out some special phenomenon in literary or social history, should be expected to know in advance in precisely what volumes he would find the evidence he sought.

Lane was Librarian of Harvard and was responding to Harvard President Charles W. Eliot’s suggestion that little-used library books be moved to a separate facility, to be built on less expensive land, where they could be shelved more densely–but where they could not be browsed directly. Readers would have to page these books at one of the central libraries; ideally, the books would then be delivered the following day.

As described in Kenneth Brough’s Scholar’s Workshop (1953), a study of the development of academic library services from the late 19th century to the early 1950s, Eliot’s plan sounds quite similar to what many academic libraries do today with their off-site and/or high density storage facilities. Eliot even advocated developing partnerships with other libraries to coordinate and share book storage; these sound quite a bit like the consortial arrangements that groups of libraries have developed in today’s world.

At the time, however, Eliot’s proposal was not adopted.** Lane undertook a survey of researchers and came to the conclusion that direct access to books was integral to certain fields of scholarship and needed to be preserved. He acknowledged, however, that other types of research would not be significantly affected by the proposed changes:

(again, I have broken this up for readability–this is part of one paragraph in the original)

A comparison of the above instances with the ordinary requests for advice and assistance constantly made at all library reference desks shows that there are two widely different ways of using a library. On the one hand, a man who desires to inform himself about some period or subject and is content to accept what some competent writer has published, consults one or two standard books on the subjects; these naturally suggest others and he follows them up if so disposed. For reading of this kind, access to a large collection is unimportant and may even be discouraging, and the elaborate equipment of a great reference library is quite unnecessary.

On the other hand, a man who undertakes to follow out some new line of inquiry, to establish relations between certain facts not hitherto studied in connection, and to draw fresh conclusions from what he learns, sets about his work in a very different way. So does one who attempts to collect from a wide range of sources, scattered and fragmentary references hitherto unnoticed on some specific subject, that he may thus add to the general sum of knowledge in regard to it. Nearly all the instances cited above are of this kind.

For such work, direct personal access to a well classified and abundant collection of books is the first requisite. To be deprived of it means at the very least a serious and unnecessary waste of time, and in many cases it altogether prevents the undertaking of the inquiry.

In fact, this liberty of access is itself of such primary importance that the question of a division of the library into books much used and books little used becomes a secondary question to be decided solely on the ground of practical convenience. A library may well find it convenient to place less used subjects, or the less used books on popular subjects, in a more distant part of the building, or even, when pressed by want of room, in a separate building, but it cannot afford to store them in such a way that scholars cannot themselves look them over and find them in an order convenient for such examination.

Writing at a time when just about the only way to read a book was to actually have it in front of you, Lane ultimately sided with a policy of open stacks, though he left the door open for building remote, but still browseable, facilities for little-used books. For the fields of research he identified as being heavily based on the types of sources found in libraries, some kind of direct access was considered essential.

Things have obviously changed quite a bit since Lane and Eliot’s time. I think it is still true that there are some disciplines that rely heavily on the kinds of materials one finds in libraries, though to be clear, I should point out that such sources can be found in lots of other places, such as archives or museums or, for that matter, in the possession of any institution, group, or individual that creates or collects (and also preserves).*** Browsing strategies remain important to these fields, but I think it’s a mistake to consider browsing synonymous with stack browsing.

Collections have grown past the point – indeed, they probably passed it years ago – where even a large research library could still provide open stacks for nearly everything it owns. Not just because of the expense and the extent of space needed, but also because increasingly materials are being created and stored in formats that simply cannot be browsed “physically” because they cannot be read directly by people: digital formats, of course, but also other forms of media (film, video, audio tape, and so on).

Moreover, there are now viable ways to gain access to the contents of books (and other sources) without actually having to hold the physical copies. You can browse in a browser. And even when you can’t get full-text, search engines, databases, and yes, even the much-maligned, often frustrating, but still valuable online library catalog can usually get you a lot farther than the old card catalog would. There are more ways of providing an “order convenient for…examination” than shelf arrangement.

Now, I don’t want to sound too technologically triumphant here. Is everything digitized? Of course not. Are there still barriers to digitizing and providing convenient electronic access to much of the material on the shelves of academic libraries? Yes.  Can stack browsing still be a useful way of finding new connections you might not otherwise have come across? Yes to that too. Does the physical object retain its importance? Certainly. We are living in a hybrid world, one that’s likely to last for quite a while.


*Given the terms of the analogy – naturalists and specimens – Lane was probably thinking of the museum here as a site of active research, not as an institution with mostly static collections. I don’t think this is a case of the library as “book museum” – although some of the other arguments Lane makes in the paper could be pushed in that direction.

**For a full discussion of the debate, see Brough, Scholar’s Workshop, 124-134. Lane wasn’t alone: the 1903 American Library Association conference hosted a panel – or what we’d now call a panel – on “The Treatment of Books According to the Amount of Their Use.” I found Lane’s paper, which appeared in the conference proceedings, by following a footnote in Brough.

***For a recent analysis of library- and record-based research, see Andrew Abbott’s papers here. It’s also worth noting that “conventional reading” is now only one of the ways to analyze such materials. There are also, to name just two broad categories, statistical and digital methods.