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 Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in storage

23 December 2009

If you read this post and were wondering what I was writing about the Declaration of Independence, you can now read it here at the Edge of the American West.

points of origins

18 December 2009

You know those stories about immigrants having their names changed, not by their own choice, upon arrival at Ellis Island or other points of entry? I hadn’t given them much thought, but it turns out that most of the stories, at least in simplest form, are very unlikely to be true. As the U.S. National Archives blog points out, most of the arrival records for immigrants – passenger manifests and the like – were produced before departure; these records may have contained errors that were reproduced in the U.S., but they were not created by Ellis Island officials.

This is not to say that immigrants didn’t have their names changed, just that – as this article linked in the comments to the archives’ post explains in more detail – the stories behind those changes are more complicated.

merely synthetic

18 December 2009

Years ago, ex-blogger (and current twitterer) Caleb McDaniel wrote a post about academic plagiarism called “Good Fear and Bad.” The good fear was the fear of committing plagiarism that keeps academics vigilant, guarding against carelessness and error in their own research and writing: “It’s one of the internal controls that helps prevent the outright cases of intellectual theft from happening.”

Of course, no one really needs to be afraid of committing conscious plagiarism: being by definition a conscious act, they should focus more on not doing it at all. But that’s not really what Caleb was talking about. Instead, he was raising the specter of truly accidental or coincidental cases: cases where one paraphrases from notes without realizing that the paraphrase brings them back more closely to the text the notes are based on, or cases where one arrives independently at an image or metaphor only to find someone else already arrived at the same place. Cases that might look like plagiarism – that might even draw accusations – but aren’t.

I was reminded of this recently because I’m currently trying to work part of a course paper into a blog post (or two). It’s my own paper but it’s not original – that is, I did the research and did the writing and everything else involved in producing the paper, but it’s based entirely on secondary sources. It’s about the history of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights as documents: mostly, it’s about how they’ve been preserved over the years. My principal sources for the pre-1950 history of the Declaration and the Constitution were the 1949 annual report of the librarian of Congress and an article by Verner Clapp in the journal Special Libraries; among my post-1950 sources were some articles in the New York Times (I can post the full bibliography with links if anyone’s interested). I did not, because I was looking at material history rather than cultural or intellectual history, look at any of the many histories of the documents as expressions of ideas. But I kept them in mind for future reading.

A few days ago, I picked up Pauline Maier’s history of the Declaration of Independence, American Scripture, and was quite surprised to find much of what I covered in my paper written into its first few pages: Maier’s introduction starts with a reflection upon the Declaration as a material object and its history. There’s no question as to primacy here: I wrote the paper a couple of months ago for a readership in the ones; Maier wrote years ago for a readership in the thousands. So I did what any former almost-historian would do: I turned to the footnotes. And sure enough I found that same Librarian of Congress annual report, the Verner Clapp article, and one of the New York Times articles I used.

Before knowing that we worked from the same sources, I found the resemblance striking, even worrying – there’s at least one quotation we both used (it’s a good quotation!); after looking at the footnotes, it seemed almost unremarkable. After all, how many different ways can you say that for a few decades the Declaration hung on a wall in the United States Patent Office Building opposite a window where it was exposed to natural light, and that many suspect this prolonged exposure of causing much of the fading visible in the document? (I have not looked that up to make sure I’m not inadvertently quoting someone. Apologies to that someone if I am.)

But what about the sources themselves? There have been cases where scholars have been accused of hiding their unoriginality by quoting and citing sources they found through others’ work without acknowledging where they found those sources. Generally, the problem is with using only the bits of sources that another scholar used without crediting that scholar (e.g. by not writing “quoted in [citation]”), not with finding the sources and then using them directly. Since I worked directly from the sources I cited and in any case I found them elsewhere, that doesn’t really apply here.

Interestingly, we followed similar routes to our identical sources: in her footnotes, Maier thanks a conservator at the Library of Congress for the references to the Clapp article and the 1949 annual report. I found those same references through an article in a 1997 issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin, which for full circularity also refers to Maier’s introduction to her book. Appropriately enough, parts of that 1997 article also seem to be based on the references it recommends. I assume we both turned to the New York Times for more recent coverage because it’s a prominent paper with a certain amount of credibility and it has carried some fairly detailed articles on the documents’ preservation.

In the end, I don’t really think accidental plagiarism, or the appearance thereof, was ever much of an issue here. I wrote about the Constitution and Bill of Rights along with the Declaration – although the Declaration has the best documented history and consequently got the most attention in the paper – and I tried to include a bit more technical detail about preservation when I could. I also cited my sources and did not claim to be uncovering original information, just to be putting together in one place information already available.

I am still glad, however, that although I picked up a copy of American Scripture some time ago I did not open it until after finishing the paper: I think I might have been so paralyzed with fear of re-summarizing Maier’s summary that I would have had a hard time writing anything at all.

off file

6 December 2009

I saw this last year over on Crooked Timber, but I was reminded of it recently and it’s still good, so I’m posting it here. This was one of four short films made using archival content from Getty Images’ Hulton Archive. It’s probably my favorite, but “Perrington Stud” is pretty well done too as a bit of storytelling.

You can see all four of the shorts here; the other two are technically well-done, but didn’t really catch my attention like these two.

historians and their fact-finding

3 December 2009

I’ve been browsing through studies of archival users over the past few days and have been finding them fascinating. (This probably says something about me.) There seems to have been a huge upsurge in interest in studying users within the archival profession in the past 15-20 years. Many of these studies, not surprisingly, focus on people conducting historical research: usually historians, but also other academic researchers, as well as genealogists, who I believe are the largest group of archives users in North America.*

I plan to write up something more detailed about these studies; having once been a(n) historian in training, I’ve been particularly interested in the studies focused on professional historians. Although that genealogy one linked above is great too, as I’ve done some casual family history searches, but nothing like what the professionals do.

In the meantime, I have a reference request: is there a study, or even a reflective article, by a historian that discusses the use of archival tools such as finding aids? Almost all of the user studies I’ve found are by archivists or others in the information professions. Meanwhile, most historical writing about archives I’ve seen generally discusses physical locations, access considerations, and maybe archivists, but then bypasses the routines of searching and requesting to jump to the archival material itself. There might be references to classification systems or organizational arrangements, but those aren’t really the focus of the writing. And then you’re left with the familiar scene of the historian alone with the sources – the emphasis is on the information sought, not the information seeking, and the latter is what I’m looking for.

I suppose this is a question that might be better on something like twitter, but it always seems like I’m on twitter late at night when no one’s around. Also, I think I might have gone over 140 characters.

*It would be interesting to know if this is true of archives use, as well as users. That is, do genealogists as a group request more material than historians (assuming historians are the second largest group)? Or do historians request so much material that, on aggregate, it outnumbers genealogical requests? And while I’m asking, how much overlap is there between these two types of requests?