The Origins of Library Handwriting, from Carrie F. Pierce to Melvil Dewey

From Kaminski Handwriting Collection
Jump to: navigation, search

The Origins of Library Handwriting, from Carrie F. Pierce to Melvil Dewey, 1887–1925 and 1925–present, in varying forms

In brief, library handwriting is a kind of handwriting with a defined set of letterforms designed to maximize clarity. It can be found most frequently on on library catalog cards (cards placed inside the catalog drawers), book spines, accession books which listed acquisitions, shelf lists, some internal paperwork, and in the correspondence of librarians. The years the style is most common are the years 1887 (earliest possible date) up through roughly 1925. However, interestingly, today one can still find librarians imitating the handwriting style on book spines or elsewhere to match writing that is nearby.

1887: Carrie F. Pierce creates the first style of library handwriting.
Melvil Dewey (famous for his Dewey Decimal System for book classification) was assigned the task along with others from the American Library Association Cooperation Committee to design a set of letterforms that would imitate type and be fast to write and easy to read. While he is given credit for the creation of library hand, there is evidence that he used the writing of a student in his first library school class. As recalled by in his 1949 book What I am Pleased to Call my Education, Harry Watson Kent, who was also in the class, said “it was a proud day when the ‘Library hand,’ the model set by Miss Carrie F. Pierce of our group (later of the Wellesley College Library), was printed by the Library Bureau and put in to general use.” 1, 2

As far as I am aware, this set of cursive vertical letterforms is the first formal original set in America to be used for a profession. The dis-joined (non-cursive) writing is the first formal original set of non-cursive letters used regularly a profession. Of course, Roman typefaces and lettering have existed for thousands of years, but in this case, Dewey insisted on a unique set of letterforms for librarians. Although my chart here is not complete, as Dewey changed the letterforms several times. But here is a list of most of them in the years 1887–1916.[[1]]


Here is a sampling of library catalog cards and letters. These first three cards are from Columbia University, where Dewey started the first library school in the country, and one would suppose that they would follow the exact letterforms set out by Dewey. They do not. Dewey did allow for both script and print, but a careful look will make evident that one has a pronounced (improper) rightward slant and that the letters are considerably different.4,5,6

(see images in folder, add files in this order) Stewart Dugald_script Mary queen of Scots_italic Mary queen of Scots_back hand

Here is a sample from the Hatboro Public Library in Pennsylvania, and it is a perfect version of Dewey’s library handwriting.7 (see image in folder) Francis Parkman

These items are all written by librarians and are in date order. (see images in folder)

1892 Frank Hill8 Frank Hill _1892

1893 Zella Allen Dixon (1858–1924)9 Zella Allen Dixson_Feb 16 1893

1898 Nina Eliza Browne (1860-1954), Columbia School of Library Economy, Class of 188910 Nina Eliza Browne_1898

1899 Nina Eliza Browne to Richard Rogers Bowker11 Nina Eliza Browne to Richard Rogers Bowker, October 22 1898, postcard.

1900 George Watson Cole (1851–1939) He was in the first graduating library school class under Melvil Dewey, though Cole’s writing departs greatly from library handwriting.12 (see image in folder) George Watson Cole_1900

1912 HSC to Lydenburg note13 (see image in folder) HSC to Lydenburg note 1912

1912 Emma D. See worked at Columbia14 (see image in folder) Emma D. See_Nov 23 1914

1927 Amy L. Hepburn (? –1966) worked at Columbia15 (see image in folder) Amy Hepburn 1927


Library handwriting of some kind can be found at least up through the 1960s and 1970s. I have seen a handwritten autobiography by an old librarian that was written in the 1960’s.

The non-standard and incorrect library handwriting, which I prefer to call “handwriting in libraries” can range from basic lettering to fine penmanship. The range is as great as all of handwriting in the time period. However, there is often a predominance of a vertical writing, or a back hand in the script form, and a vertical or slightly leftward leaning tendency in capital letters and numbers.

Badly executed or entirely incorrect sets of the letterforms have co-existed with library hand since the very beginning in 1887, and continue up through the present. It appears that librarians are also influenced by lettering or library handwriting in their environment, and they write in imitation of library hand without ever being taught it formally. For example, while researching in a library in New York, I spent several hours with a young librarian whose writing was fairly standard rightward sloping handwriting. When I asked her who had written the backhanded titles (similar to library handwriting) on file folders and such other items I saw, she said it was her writing. She was entirely unaware that she was writing in the style of library handwriting.

I will grant you that librarians make up a small portion of the population and their writing may seen somewhat irrelevant, but it is essential to separate it out from other writing, if one is to determine issues regarding angle and style in the American writing corpus after 1887 and Dewey’s publishing of the library handwriting letterforms. The close proximity of date between library handwriting (1887) and vertical writing (1893/1894) is the crux of the problem, but being aware of the existence and fine points of each style is enough to carry forward the future study of each.

Addenda: My abandoned working essay on this is “The Context and History of Library Hand.” It may serve as resource for others doing work on this subject. Another essay “A History of American Back Hand and Backslant Handwriting and Penmanship” also provides examples, a timeline, and the essay tries to separate and clarify some differences among the back hand of the public, some legal use, and that of librarians.

Also of note: as of the year 2020, the Wikipedia page puts forth the notion that Thomas Edison was somehow involved in the creation of the style of writing. This idea is also printed in The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures from 2017 without any trace of a source. While an interesting idea, I have myself seen the papers of Melvil Dewey and the only a brief brief letter between him or his office and Edison, as I recall. Anyone who wants to further verify this can visit the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University to see it.


Carrie F. Pierce, the person who originated the library handwriting script was later a librarian at Wellesley College Library. She left behind some notes and letters in the collection of library papers there. While her personal writing style is clearly not library handwriting, the paperwork and such in the era that she worked there does have carefully executed library handwriting.

Library Handwriting

 1. Henry Watson Kent, What I am Pleased to Call my Education, p. 13, New York: The Grolier Club, 1949. 
 2. This information was brought to my attention by Jane Siegel, librarian, Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
 3. Melvil Dewey, Library handwriting, Original sources include Library notes, New York State publications and others, Comparison image by David Kaminski, 1887-1916. http://davidkaminski.org/wiki/File:Melvil_Dewey_Library_handwriting_comparison_1887-1916.jpg
 4. Catalog drawer card of Stewart, Dugald. 1753–1828, Humanities Division, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York.

5. Catalog drawer card of Mary, queen of Scots. 1542–87, Humanities Division, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York.

 6. Catalog drawer card of Mary, Queen of Scots. 1542–87, Humanities Division, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York.
 7. Catalog drawer card of Half century of conflict, Parkman, Francis, Hatboro Public Library, Hatboro, Pennsylvania.
 8. Frank Hill to Richard Rogers Bowker, May 10, 1892, Richard Rogers Bowker papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, New York.
 9. Zella Allen Dixson to Melvil Dewey, letter, February 16 1893, Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Melvil Dewey papers, [ca. 1870]-1931.
 10. Nina Eliza Browne to Richard Rogers Bowker, October 22 1898, Richard Rogers Bowker papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, New York.
 11. Nina Eliza Browne to Richard Rogers Bowker, October 22 1898, postcard, Richard Rogers Bowker papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, New York.
 12. George Watson Cole to Herbert Putnam, March 29, 1900, The Records of the Library of Congress, The Central File, Putnam - Macleish, Box 48, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
 13. H.C.S. note to Harry Miller Lydenberg, John Shaw Billings papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, New York, 1912.
 14. Emma D. See to W. B. Gamble, November 23, 1914, John Shaw Billings papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, NewYork.
 15. Amy Hepburn to Reference Department New York Public Library, February 27, 1927, Edwin Hatfield Anderson Records, The New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, New York, 1927. 
 16. David Kaminski, “The Context and History of Library Hand,” 2017, http://scalar.usc.edu/works/handwriting/index