Colleagues often remark to us that students must find 18th- and 19th-century handwriting too difficult to decipher, since cursive is rarely taught in schools anymore. Three years and over 1,100 students later, we are happy to report that not a single student visiting our archives proved unable or unwilling to read handwritten documents.
Initially, most students are intimidated by a document written in old and unfamiliar script. Friendly encouragement and supportive facilitation can help instill necessary confidence. Students often feel more comfortable when given clear care and handling instructions for fragile documents and when provided with useful tools, like magnifying glasses or “snakes” that weigh down pages.
We have found that students respond positively to the idea that 18th- and 19th-century handwriting is a challenging but doable puzzle. When students are using materials written in a difficult hand, we start the archives visit by demonstrating to the whole class (before commencing any small group work) several tips for decoding the letters.
We might, for example, write a long “s” on a board and ask what letter it is. Students will guess “f” or “j.” Then we complete a word around the lone letter, and point out the four different ways an “s” can appear in manuscript materials: as a capital s, long s, short s, and final s. Once students know this – or that a “p” or an “h” is not written as tightly as it is today – they start to notice other patterns.
It is best to have students work in small groups of 2 – 4 when reading a handwritten document. The challenge of the task builds a sense of camaraderie among participants. It allows them to sound out particular words or phrases together. Instructors can also consider assigning students different roles during the task: one can read, while another can take notes or photographs, and a third student can transcribe.
Instructors should select relatively short handwritten documents for students to read – especially if students are new to primary source research. A full page of densely-written script can scare away even the most seasoned researcher. They should also ensure that students have ample time to read and analyze the document. We have facilitated class visits in which groups of students spend upwards of 75 minutes reading one relatively short handwritten legal document.
Asking students to read a handwritten document reinforces essential and foundational document analysis skills. Students must read slowly and methodically; sometimes they have to read the same passage several times in a row. Reading closely also pushes students to examine important physical characteristics about the document: for example, the binding of a journal, the quality of the paper and ink, or the fact that the paper was reused for a different purpose.
When students spend a lot of time and effort simply decoding or transcribing a document, they can get so caught up in the puzzle that they forget to try to really understand the meaning of the text. It can help to require students to write down and look up definitions for unfamiliar words. Or, when asking students to transcribe documents, ask them to also summarize the document in sections to ensure close reading and comprehension.
Most students expressed increased enthusiasm and ease after successfully deciphering a handwritten passage. It instills in them a new confidence in their ability to do archival research. Making sense of those lines of cursive shows students that they have what it takes to be a scholar.
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “Building Students’ Paleography Skills,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/paleography/.