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

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The Origins of Library Handwriting, from Caroline (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 readability. 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: Caroline (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 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.

The earliest manuscript evidence of library handwriting that I have found are these postcards, postmarked February 7, 1887. [[1]] [[2]] In the month that follows, March 1887, the Library Bureau prints Library Journal, Vol. I, No. 4 with library handwriting explained and with a printed example of the alphabet and numerals.[[3]] It is also of note that the postcard includes some versions of the revised script that is presented later the same year.

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.[[4]]

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 Pierce and 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.

See these cards for Stewart Dugald, in script;[[5]] Mary queen of Scots, in italic;[[6]] and Mary queen of Scots, in back hand.[[7]] As for the two versions of the "Q" and "q," the small Q variation falls outside of the letterforms at prescribed.

Here is a sample of card of Francis Parkman's Half Century of Conflict from the Union Library of Hatborough in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, and it is a perfect version of library handwriting.[[8]]

These items are all written by librarians and are in date order.

This letter was signed by Frank P. Hill[9]] at the time that he was the secretary of the American Library Association. One assumes that the writing is his as well, though the difference between the writing and the signature could be used to argue against that supposition.

Zella Allen Dixon (1858–1924, letter to Melvil Dewey, Feb 16 1893.[[10]] Edna D. Bullock, letter to Melvil Dewey, September 11, 1893.[[11]]

Nina Eliza Browne (1860-1954), Columbia School of Library Economy, Class of 1889, wrote this letter to Richard Rogers Bowker, Editor, Library Journal[[12]]

HSC to Lydenburg note 1912[[13]]

Emma D. See, Applied Science Librarian, Columbia University to W. B. Gamble at NYLP. [[14]]
W. H. Brett per HBW, 1912[[15]]

Amy L. Hepburn (? –1966) worked at Columbia University as a Natural Science Librarian. Here, she writes in manuscript print. [[16]]

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.”[[17]] 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 of backslant, and the of handwriting 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 there is 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 (Caroline) F. Pierce, the person who originated the library handwriting script was later a librarian at Wellesley College Library after graduating from there in 1891. 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.

 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.