The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Illegible, She Wrote
A week or so ago, I was looking through documents scanned by the Smithsonian Institution Archives over the past two years at the request of researchers. Many of them were images of telegrams, receipts, inventories, and carefully hand-typed correspondence from a pre-computer era, when strike-outs and corrections were thought to be unprofessional and problematic.
What struck me the most were the hand-written notes, log books, and documents I came across. More than typeset or printed texts, the sight of idiosyncratic handwritten text can trigger a case of time travel. You get a sense that you’re looking at intimate evidence of another person’s history and thinking. In addition, handwriting reveals something about cultural values—how, and in what manner, we’ve been encouraged to express ourselves when we communicate with others. My handwriting, to tell the truth, has become laughable; it’s degenerated to a point where I have to continually remind myself to slow down if there’s any hope of deciphering the scrawl later. More and more often, when I write I use block letter forms.
I’m not alone, according to a New York Times article from late April that reported about a growing phenomenon. In increasing numbers, people are finding it difficult to create or comprehend messages using the looping uprights and descending letter forms of cursive handwriting. The article raises a number of interesting issues: is the handwriting of those of us who’ve adopted block letter printing more susceptible to forgery? Does giving up the skills necessary to shape cursive letters suggest that we’re doomed to become less skilled in fine motor skills? What will happen, Katie Zezima, the article’s author wonders, when “young people who are not familiar with cursive have to read historical documents like the Constitution?”
She goes on to report that when Jimmy Bryant, director of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Central Arkansas, asked students to raise their hands if they wrote in cursive as a way to communicate, no one did. Schools, it turns out, now spend less time teaching handwriting than they once did. Today, cursive is generally taught in the third grade, not over a series of years as it once was. Some schools—pressed to focus on subjects students are regularly testing in, like reading and math—are starting to question whether cursive writing is a necessary 21st century skill. Bryant believes that the less we practice cursive, the more our connection to archival materials will diminish.
So, will we, in the not-too-distant future, have a hard time or lack the patience to read documents like this?
For now, there’s software that scans and translates non-connected handwritten block letters into digital text. And, ironically, there are also programs you can use to create digital fonts based upon your own handwriting to give your digital correspondence a “personal touch.” But not much effort is being spent on developing software capable of “reading” connected letter forms. Which makes me wonder how often we’ll be having what Anne VanCamp, director of the the Archives, described to me as “those ‘aha!’ moments when someone comes across something that's unique, that no one else has touched since the person who first created it.”