Draft notes only: Library Hand and the Handwriting of Librarians

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http://scalar.usc.edu/works/handwriting/index [1]

Library Hand and the Handwriting of Librarians

Library Hand and its Origins

In this article, I hope to peel away at the layers of assumptions that librarians, academics, and scholars have regarding library hand. While not everyone has heard of it, those who have heard of it have only a vague sense of what it is, usually. Or, they have seen an assortment of styles and have conflated them into some larger category that they call library hand. But what is it, really? How is it defined? Who defines it, and why?

Few professions can boast that they have their own set of letterforms--their own style of writing. Yet, librarians can claim library hand as their own thanks to the efforts of a handful of men, and most particularly to Melvil Dewey. Library hand is a style of writing designed for the needs of librarians and their patrons. It was supposed to be relatively fast for a librarian to write and easy for a patron to read while looking at the style on a catalog card in a catalog drawer.

The earliest materials that document the discussion of library hand come from a meeting in which Melvil Dewey and others are discussing the need for efficiency and exactitude in libraries at the American Library Association Lake George Conference, September 8-11, 1885. While each of the men seems to have his own opinions about the current style of handwriting used for business (Spencerian and others), some of them have already explored some variations of writing styles, they have created samples for others to see, and they have been experimenting with different kinds of pens and the thickness of lines. They have, themselves, begun to employ library handwriting, and what we might consider early forms of library hand.

Lacking their initial work, samples, and further documents, the only possible way to know more about the genesis of this style is to try to find accession records or some catalog cards that cover this span of time, from perhaps 1883-1886. Ideally, those documents would be dated, the writer identifiable, and the documents would show in what exact way the library hand was used, and when it was not, and what variations of writing style were being used.

Another method is to look at handwritten items that are of a broader date range, with identifying details if possible, or not, and to begin to collect some empirical evidence that can be the basis for learning about the acceptance or transition to library hand among librarians. Printed matter with discussion about library hand or other writing styles can also be used to help define its use by individuals, particular libraries, groups of affiliated libraries, regional library systems, state library systems, and national library systems both in the United States and abroad.

There are some obvious difficulties here with the methods I have outlined. First, one would have to visit a great number of libraries, search through their existing archives, find material, identify it, begin to assemble it in some order, and try to sort out the history of the person and the library itself. Yet, that is exactly what I am attempting to do, in a slow but determined manner, and at a much smaller scale than is necessary.

My hope, therefore, I will state here at the beginning of this article, is that many librarians with material in their archives and catalogs might begin to gather and sort and ask questions about what style of writing they are looking at. I have already received some kind help from some librarians with materials, and I would be grateful for more help.

It seems clear to me already that acceptance of library hand was slow and happened over a number of years, that it was employed in a variety of ways (even in business letters written to Dewey, for example), and that in some cases, I suppose it may have never been used and perhaps a librarian chose instead a typewriter or the handwriting of the time.

Here is the most difficult part of the task: the handwriting of the period was changing, as it always does, and so separating out the library hand from the other styles becomes more difficult. Spencer and his cohort with their fancy style were fading in influence, and the business styles of Palmer and others were slowly being introduced. These, thankfully, are not easily confused with library hand. The most difficult style to distinguish from true library hand, though, is the vertical style. To the average person, library hand and vertical writing may look nearly the same.

Vertical writing was introduced as early as 1883 in England, became popular in Canada and the northern reaches of the United States in 1891 or so, and came into widespread use in schools in 1894 and continued to be used until about 1904, though in some cases it persisted in schools or business in some form or variation until a decade later.

How then, does one distinguish between a librarian who learned vertical penmanship at the age of thirteen in 1894 and is using it at the age of seventeen in 1899 versus an adherent to library hand? In many ways, it is difficult.

Why is this research difficult? Simply because the styles are so similar, and there is not yet enough study in this area. In some cases, books on the subject of handwriting fail to mention vertical writing at all, or only the most basic or previously known details are repeated. Researchers may reduce writing into a few styles to create clarity and order when discussing it, and some might insist that vertical writing is a style, and go no further; they will group together library hand and the vertical styles. This is expeditious, to be sure, and that is exactly what is wrong with most scholarship in penmanship. Rather, we should be sorting out the many styles and influences and regional and personal variations. Do penmen and scholars truly look at individual variations, and can this promote any new area of study, and can it yield any new insights? I would argue that the answer is yes.

Among the root causes of the confusion is that each individual writes differently. Even worse, Melvil Dewey is a personal variation unto himself. He published not just one form of library hand, but several. He printed one set of letterforms in the first part of 1887, and then he added another form and printed it later in the same year. In 1898, there is another set of letterforms, and in 1916, another. While my research has already begun in earnest, I suppose that additional letterforms may have been printed, if not by Dewey, theNew York State Library, or the ALA, then maybe by others. Here, is an image of those that I have found that are in print and that were designed to be disseminated as examples to be emulated by those in library school as well as those employed as librarians. For the librarians, these letterforms and additional material included in the articles was their brief copybook. [2]

As an aside, I would add that this sort of confusion of printing of different styles or editions with the same dates, using of old plates, recycling of styles, stealing outright the work of others, or borrowing from oneself is in fact part of the history of handwriting. It is integral to its evolution and change, its repetition and variation over the many years.

In fact, I would argue (as some others likely have as well) that the availability of inexpensive and good quality paper, advances in printing techniques, the affordability of books, new businesses and a new type of economy, the easy exchange of letters via the postal system, and the widespread belief in and implementation of public schools all converge in the nineteenth century to create a tangle of American writing.

While Ray Nash thoughtfully assembled a bibliography of penmen and copybooks up to 1850, it is likely that he saw, and others since have understood too, that after 1850, the world changes dramatically and swiftly and the explosion of books and editions is almost too hard to track or to sort.

But library hand and vertical writing are a small enough subset, and librarians and libraries themselves are also a such a well-defined group, that we can and should take the time to explore more fully the implications of the changes in libraries, and we should investigate the writing in this period.

Therefore, the historical record is a good starting point, and there is no better place to begin than with the conversation among Dewey and others from the ALA in 1885, as they discuss library economy and library systems, including both typewriters and library handwriting.

The conversation which took place on Wednesday, September 9th can be found on pages 126-127 [3] To best frame the context, I have included, in its original order, a conversation about typewriters that is immediately followed by a conversation about library handwriting.

Proceedings of the ALA Conference, Lake George, 1885


Mr. DEWEY. --I have been experimenting in type-writers, and have tried the Remington, the Caligraph, the Hall, the Columbia, the Sun, and the Hammond. Mr. Richardson has got some good results from the Hall. I did not get very satisfactory results on catalogue cards until I got the Hammond. I still have two Hall machines, --slow, but that is not a serious consideration in cataloguing, as it would be in commercial matters. The Hammond has an action somewhat like the Remington, but instead of working over a cylinder, it works against a flat surface, thus allowing the best of work on flat, stiff cards. Another peculiarity is, that the whole set of type can be changed in thirty seconds. You can have a special type cut for library purposes, and the manufacturers have now agreed to make for the Library Bureau a special form of machine, containing our special characters, etc., and called the Card Cataloguer. It is very perfect in its action, and gives excellent results. This is one of the library machines that we ought to utilize. The cost is the same as of the Remington.

Mr. MAC. --I saw the proprietor the day before I left NewYork, and he said that he had perfected an attachment by which you could write a full card, i.e., could write clear out to the margins on all four edges.

Mr. CARR. --I was led to experiment with a type-writer, because my handwriting is very unsatisfactory. I commenced with the Remington. The first objection which arose is that you are limited to the space that the machine gives. It starts out with three methods of spacing. There are also three spaces in the Hammond. The Hall is slow, but in ordinary catalogue work, I think, will work as fast as ordinary penmanship. For correspondence the others are way ahead of it. Time is lost every time you insert a card, and to work correctly you have to figure to get each card in the place occupied by the previous one. I speak without having practical knowledge of the Hammond.

Mr. DEWEY. --In the Special Library Hammond you can throw the card right in, and it is held in the exact place by special guides, so all time of adjustment is saved.

Mr. CARR. --You cannot do that with the Remington. For good work the Hall is superior, and it will write on a continuous strip of paper, in which it has the advantage over other machines. The cost of the Hall is less than the others. I have found that from type-writers you cannot get the advantages you can from print--you get all your work in one set of type. You cannot get the smaller type. You are limited for emphasis to the caps and lower case, and must go through your work and mark it. All these machines, except the Hammond, are defective in not having the less usual points. We need, among others, the bracket.

Mr. DEWEY. --In the Hammond Library machine all these points are supplied.

Mr. CARR. --The Hall is unsatisfactory for other reasons: e.g., where it is desirable to make rapid impressions of the same character. I have seen the Caligraph, the Remington, the People's, but not the Columbia or Hammond. The Hall, so far, has answered the best of anything I have found, and I think its type is the best.

Mr. DEWEY. --The Hammond aligns more perfectly than the Remington.

Mr. CARR. --I think the Hall the best for indexing work. I think these slips show the best impression--that taken by the Hall. You do not lose any time in changing the work from one slip to another. I am purposing to try the Hammond. Perhaps that will answer better. Except in correspondence, very little type-writing comes into my hands, and never has a specimen of the Hammond come to my hands yet. I do not think it has been experimented with to any extent.

Mr. RICHARDSON. -- I have used the Caligraph for three years. The Hall does very slow work, but it is better than nothing. After seeing it at Columbia College I made up my mind to have the Hammond at once for the simple card catalogue. If you write Russian or Roumanian or Syriac, as I often do [laughter], it can be done with the Hammond. The Hammond is decidedly better for a simple card catalogue. I like it better than the Caligraph.


Mr. BORDEN. --I object to library handwriting made with a fine pen. If you are looking at a card catalogue where the lines are fine you have to get into an uncomfortable position in order to read the letters. The handwriting should be as near print as possible, and I have used lately the round writing pens. They are made in Germany, I think. They give a light up line but a very heavy down line, so that the resemblance to print is about as close as letters will admit of. I have some specimens of the writing. The usual form of letters is sufficient.

Mr. NELSON. --I saw in a recent number of "Science," [August 21, 1885, Vol. VI, No. 133, page 146] in a sketch of T. A. Edison, the inventor, the statement that Edison had "experimented to devise the best style of penmanship for telegraph operators, selecting finally a slight back-hand, with regular round letters apart from each other, and not shaded, attaining himself by its means a speed of forty-five words a minute." He thought that this hand might prove suitable for cards, by reason of its clearness, and the speed claimed for it.

Mr. DEWEY. --This question of library handwriting is an exceedingly practical one, and I am conducting a series of experiments to find out what is really most legible in catalogue drawers for the average reader in average circumstances. Some of the handwriting is very condensed, some very extended; some write too fine lines, and there is a lack of uniformity in some hands; so it becomes very hard reading. We ought to find out what is the most legible handwriting, and the Spencerian publishers have agreed to engrave such a hand if we will tell them which is best for library use.

Dr. HOMES. --There was a magnificent well- known English hand, the round hand of forty to eighty years ago. In Paris the writing-masters advertised it as "Ecriture anglaise," and it was popular. The account-books of those days are full of specimens. Spencer and modern men have introduced a pointed hand, one which allows of constant confusion of several letters, i, m, w, n, u, r, s, t, and doubtless others. The modern final s of the writing- masters is constantly liable to be mistaken for a final r or t. Why should they intrude a change?

Mr. DEWEY. --They print over one hundred different alphabets, and Dr. Homes refers to their fine and not very legible school writing-books.

Prof. POLLENS. --We want a handwriting that approaches as near to type as possible, that will do away with individual characteristics, will be legible, and will allow of a fair amount of rapidity and uniformity.

Mr. WHITNEY. --The trouble in handwriting is that there is apt to be too much flourishing, and that while the up stroke is made so light as not to be seen, the down one is apt to be as black as Erebus.

Mr. FOSTER. -- I hope that if a system is recommended it will include numerals as well as letters.

Mr. NELSON moved that the matter be referred to the Cooperation Committee. Carried.

Understanding the Systems of the Library as Related to Writing

While the comments on foreign letters elicit laughter from the group, its further discussion here illustrates a central challenge surrounding library hand and how it is employed in the vastly complex system they are creating. These librarians are designing systems of organization, each part of it inevitably affecting the other. They are assessing the means used by libraries in other countries, comparing notes with one another regarding their own experiences, working through means of classification, and creating internal records, public records, different card catalogs. How then does a librarian therefore deal with either a book printer, a typewriter, or a pen to write foreign letters and words? Are they to be transliterated? Should phonetic spelling (used by Dewey and some others in the ALA) be a way to organize authors and titles?

Is it possible that the writing of one librarian might not be able to be read by himself or herself, let alone by another librarian or patron?

While at Lake George, Charles A. Cutter, speaking for the ALA Transliteration Committee, shares his insights about the nature of the catalog.

In determining the principles of transliteration it must be remembered that a catalogue is not a learned treatise intended for special scholars, and bound to an erudite consistency, at whatever cost of convenience. It is simply a key to open the doors of knowledge to a partly ignorant and partly learned public, and it is very important that such a key should turn easily. A good catalogue, therefore, will be a compromise between the claims of learning and logic on the one hand, and of ignorance, error, and custom on the other. Speaking generally, that form of name must be chosen with which people now are, and in the future will be, most familiar. This reference to the future is important. The catalogue must not be in advance of its age; but, on the other hand, it will not be well that it should be behind the next generation. If, therefore, there is an evident current of progress in any direction the makers of the catalogue will do well to be a little before the present practice, in the hope that the world will soon catch up with them, not to pass them before the catalogue itself has been superseded by another. The larger the catalogue, therefore, and the less likely to be soon reprinted, the more may it venture to be ahead of the times. Nevertheless the maker will do well to remember that the future is very uncertain.

Cutter makes these statements as a way to remind the group of the larger goals, and with this, he goes on to discuss choosing to differ with the Dictionary of Biography and its Dr. Thomas, codifying the writings of the committee’s Mr. Heilprin's as printed in the Nation, and accepting the August 1885 "System of Orthography for Native Names of Places" established by the Royal Geographical Society. These he shares with the entire library group, and they are also reprinted for their larger audience in their own proceedings. See pages 535-536 in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record, Vol. VII, 1885, printed in London. [4] and well as the same material in addition to the full discussion of the Lake George transliteration session on pages 108-117. [5]

To digress on this topic further consider the challenges noted at the Lake George meeting.

Mr. Whitney illustrated the difficulties and confusion in transliterating Russian by the different forms to be found of the name of the novelist Turgenef, as Tourgeneff, Turgenef, Toorgenef, Turgenev, Turgenjeff, Tourgueneff, Tourguenef, Turgenjew, Turgenieff, Turgheneff, Tourgenieff, Turgenuv, etc. He continued: It is hardly an exaggeration to say that no two persons, even in the same library, will agree in any particular case as to the best form of transliterating Russian, and whichever form may be chosen, the Russian student, especially if Russian born, will hold up his hands in horror and despair as becomes to the card catalogue.

It is, doubtless, best to print titles with Russian type, if such can be obtained. The German printers have fonts; if any are to be found in this country, elsewhere than at Cambridge, this Association would be glad to know it. Lacking type, the next choice is to imitate the Russian character with a pen. In either case the original difficulty is encountered. How are you to alphabetize the title in your card catalogue so that, having once let it pass from your sight, you can ever hope to find it again?

The staggeringly difficult task of working with all the languages these librarians were encountering becomes clear when one sees the transliteration tables prepared by Professor Lanman, of Harvard, for Sanskrit; Professor Toy, of Harvard, for Semitic languages [it is inferred that this is his]; and Mr. Heilprin, for Russian. [6]

Added to this is a presentation by a Professor Lantham with a detailed explanation of his own table, also staggering in its complexity. Near the close of this presentation, the committee members share their thoughts, and here we see how different men, both geniuses in their own right, Cutter and Dewey, approach this subject. At stake is more than it appears to the eye: the difference between Cutter’s “catalogue” and Dewey’s “catalog,” and here, one can better understand the personal schism as well as the professional implications created by Cutter’s rejection of phonetic spelling and Dewey’s admiration for it.

After further general discussion, all speakers favoring letters rather than sound as the better basis for the committee to use in making its code of rules, Mr. Dewey said: Personally I know little of this question, having given it no special study. I moved, two years ago, that this committee be appointed, because I wished a set of rules for my own cataloguers, and was disheartened with the diversity of practice. All my prejudices favor the phonetic rather than the literal plan; but practically I know our alphabet is not now equal to representing the sounds of even our own language. Then very few of us or our cataloguers know the pronunciation of these odd languages or have time to learn them. We can mechanically write a certain letter for another character without knowing the sound or meaning of either. While the phonetic method is the ideal method I am convinced that it is not practicable, and if tried would lead to endless blunders and diversities. The committee asks on which plan it shall base its rules. As every speaker has favored letters I think we may safely express that as our opinion and go on with our crowded program. I therefore move that in the opinion of the Association the better plan would be to transliterate the letters. (Lake George, 115)

After Mr. Poole later questions the authority and influence of the ALA in respect to transliteration and the committee mulls over the meaning of its vote and what it means for both older and new libraries, the vote never takes place, even though there are no objections, and Dewey withdraws his motion. Yet, one can see, as history shows, that the phonetic and simplified spelling is in the end not fit for the catalog/catalogue.

Therefore, one can better understand that when these librarians are discussing the needs of a simple and exact style for writing, the matter is of grave importance, if “you can ever hope to find it again.”

For a sense of the printer's and typesetter's challenges, one consider a sample of the type created for the Milwaukee public library catalog in 1886 and shared in the proceedings from that year on page 169 [7] and that of the Boston Atheneum. [8] See the page link here. [9]

Professor Pollens summarizes the needs they all face. “We want a handwriting that approaches as near to type as possible, that will do away with individual characteristics, will be legible, and will allow of a fair amount of rapidity and uniformity.” And Mr. Whitney adds that "The trouble in handwriting is that there is apt to be too much flourishing, and that while the up stroke is made so light as not to be seen, the down one is apt to be as black as Erebus." The kind of writing that would have sufficed to some degree on a ledger in an early library was harder to read on a card. This is not to say that Spencerian and other scripts were not used, but their disadvantages were highlighted when on cards in the catalog drawers. See this example from the Massachusetts Historical Society. [[10]]

Mr. Borden says, “I object to library handwriting made with a fine pen. If you are looking at a card catalogue where the lines are fine you have to get into an uncomfortable position in order to read the letters. The handwriting should be as near print as possible, and I have used lately the round writing pens. They are made in Germany, I think. They give a light up line but a very heavy down line, so that the resemblance to print is about as close as letters will admit of. I have some specimens of the writing. The usual form of letters is sufficient.”

Among the chief differences between library hand and the style of writing designed for schools, letter writing, and business of that time is that all of these had, in some ways, at their foundation, a style based upon the need to impress the reader with one’s character—an impression that might shine through the writing itself, whereas Dewey is advocating for writing that has legibility as its highest priority.

Having stripped away character and individuality, the letters alone will stand as some pure sign. As a side note, this, we will see later, is one reason that vertical handwriting (the larger group that library hand belongs to) comes to its demise, as it is too easy to forge on bank checks and that bank tellers cannot verify the identity of the signator. “Business men condemn it and the banks especially dislike to have teachers and others sign their checks in the vertical hand claiming there is a lack of individuality in their signatures.” (Cleveland Public Schools Sixty-Ninth Annual Report of the Board of Education, Cleveland: 1905, page 61) [11][12]

Yet, it is worth noting, that library hand suffers no such quick end, for its style serves another and more exact purpose. As Dewey makes clear, they must have “what is really most legible in catalogue drawers for the average reader in average circumstances.” The challenges to read easily the writing are many. Librarians of this time were using gaslight or early electrical fixtures, and debates about architecture of the libraries, rooms, windows and skylights were taking place to solve their need for illumination. As Dewey himself recalls, also in this 1885 conference, "In '73, when we came to the question of lighting our building, though gas- pipes were all in place, we feared the bad effects of gas on the books, and dreaded the heat and products of combustion given off. Our trustees are very careful, conservative men, and when the electric light was recommended they ordered a searching investigation by expert engineers, architects, oculists, and professors. As a result of thorough examination, it seemed clear that the Edison incandescent light was the best artificial light at present known." (Lake George, 139-140) [13]

As for elements one might assume had been solved by 1885, such as architecture, room design, window size, window placement, and skylights--it is clear that these issues were still in debate at the next conference in 1886. At the Milwaukee meeting, President Poole, reviews a paper by Mr. Magnusson, an English architect who is promoting a “pattern library” that has a spiral design, which has many features in common with the 1873 plans for the Library of Congress. The conversation includes such topics as “concentric and polygonic walls,” domes, and skylights (162). For the full discussion, see Papers and Proceedings of the Eighth General Meeting of the American Library Association, held at Milwaukee, July 7-10, 1886. Boston: 1886. Pages 161-164.

One need only see an image of such a room to appreciate the seriousness of the debate and its ultimate effect on the patron's ability to read the card catalog. Here is the room with the main card catalog at the Library of Congress. This photo by Sally Reeder captures the A - F card catalogs in 1984, courtesy Sally and Tom Reeder. [14] [[15]]

The drawers themselves present their own obstacles to viewing. There is the varying placement of the drawers, being both high and low (assuming the drawers cannot be removed and placed optimally), the distances of the catalog to the viewer’s eyes, the angle of the cards in the drawer, and the inevitably difficulty of reading the bottom of the card at an acute angle.

While it is true that each of these men has had a thorough education and has absorbed the necessary skills taught by previous writing teachers, there is no discussion of that here. They may assume that the skills are transferrable to any style.

Understanding the Exact Nature of Library Hand

Library hand is best understood by looking at the models provided by Melvil Dewey. As mentioned previously he published several versions of letterforms; therefore, it is accurate to say that because he designated them as library hand, they are in fact so.

What do library cards look like? Are they written in library hand? I will let you judge for yourself, as you judge both the models of library hand and the cards themselves. [[16]] [17] For those librarians and others with access to cards and other writing, I invite you to add images to this collection.

Adding to the complication about judging a card or writing to be in library hand or not, I must also remind the reader that these different letterforms may be mixed and used in the same pieces, so it is possible to see some cards that have elements from one set, and other elements from another set. In this case, we would judge the writing as having mixed library hand styles, from both earlier and later dates.

What becomes more problematic is that in the attempted execution of this style, one will often see some letterforms that are either poorly written, from an earlier writing style such as Spencerian, a contemporaneous style of vertical handwriting, or some idiosyncratic letterform that is not easily or quickly identified.

Is it possible that a librarian can use both library hand and non-library hand style in the same word or on the same card? To be a stickler regarding letterforms, the quick answer is yes. In a more general sense, it seems acceptable to say that it is written in the library hand style with some minor variations. There are varying degrees of adherence to the style, and so the point at which a card seems to be no longer written in library hand is not clear, and perhaps that is a personal judgment.

As a true library hand slopes further to the left (Dewey designated it as a slightly leftward sloping style) even a proper library hand might be also called a library hand that has an overly leftward sloping angle, or that has become very backhanded. At worst, perhaps it could devolve into a non-library hand backhand? The same is true for a style that slopes to the right. Is this no longer library hand?

At what point does letterform or style depend on the slope, and a what point would a purist designate it as an illegitimate letterform?

In the end, one will rarely see a card or piece of writing that adheres to the exact models set out by Dewey. He was a librarian first and foremost, not a writing instructor, and this is true for others. I would conjecture that they were busy with the task before them, and while they likely did their best to observe Dewey’s rules, they usually fell further and further away from them as time passed, as is true for most writers. As such, whatever library hand rules they may have looked at, or learned even in college while in library school, it is hard to imagine that those same models were looked at regularly or in plain sight while they were writing. Also, I do not expect that other colleagues were critical and giving guidance about their writing. The patrons, as audience, were likely not giving much feedback either. If the card could be read and was neat, I would suppose that it was put into the card catalog.

A caveat to the generality about the progressive deterioration of writing styles is that in the cases where children were drilled for years in Spencerian or Palmer or Zaner, and where the exactness of the letterforms was the single most important goal, these students and adults often maintained a beautiful and highly readable hand well into the latter part of their lives, and it is possible to see such writing by a person of 80 or 90 that is nearly perfect.

As for library hand, it began as a set of vertical letterforms and then, I suspect, became, in the mind of a librarian more of a general set of guidelines: to use a vertical style of some kind, an even and broad stroke, to write neatly, and to be either in a script form or printed out one letter at a time.

Regarding Dewey’s inclusion of disjoined/disjoind hand, a print form, one could say that he is prescient, for as writing moves well into the twentieth century, the letter by letter printing comes to the primary schools and replaces entirely the script that had been part of American writing for centuries.

Dewey, as always, and in all manner of things, seemed to be ahead of his time.

For those trying to identify library hand in their catalog, I applaud your work and the time it takes to look through your collection. In the case of trying to class all library cards, say, in one set, a person might find some where all of the letterforms are at least vertical in nature. These, we could agree are part of the larger group of writing we call vertical writing. As for distinguishing from among the many styles, that is harder. As time allows, I will add an array of vertical writing styles from a variety of authors and publishers to this page so that readers can see these in comparison to library hand, and perhaps this will help identify these letters or styles intermixed or replacing the library hand style.

There is of course a real and true library hand. Look for it, and share it as you find it. And share the panoply of other handwritten cards that you find, and perhaps in the future we can make more exact statements about how library hand was used in libraries.

Do know that library hand persisted for many years in libraries. Some say that it persisted into the 1950’s. Others suggest different dates. I have not myself studied a great enough number of cards thoroughly enough to make any judgments. My samples are too limited to make any claim.

For every card that I find that hints as to the style of the writer and the time itself, I have found another set of cards of the same dates, often in the same drawer, with a different writer whose style is different. What are we to make of this?

Individuality expresses itself in all ways, including in writing, and some librarians express their early writing habits, their good and bad personal habits; and yes, exhaustion, a tired hand, age, eyesight, effort, sped of writing, pens, and ink all affect the final work. We must find a way to sort through the materials and to make some sense of it, if we are to learn the full story of library hand. That is the task before us all.

As a topic related to the exhaustion of the writer, we should turn to some of the particulars where library hand and vertical writing have almost nothing in common.

Vertical Writing and Library Hand, a Shared Beginning?

Is it a coincidence that these librarians happened upon a vertical form of writing at a time when John Jackson is promoting it in England? I think not. While I have not yet been able to substantiate this assumption, or hunch, let's say, it is clear in the personal papers of Melvil Dewey that he corresponded with at least one librarian in London no later than 1886. [18] [19] One can easily conjecture, I think, that he and the others had read some articles about vertical writing, for several years had passed since its introduction into Europe by the time all of these men were themselves creating some nascent form of library hand.

The exact dates of the history of vertical writing are somewhat elusive as I write this (a book that I hoped might clear it up is lost in a library, and not to be found right now), and some dates, though printed, have not been verified. Yet, there are dates that come before this 1885 conversation in Lake George. For example, we are told that “In 1883 this [vertical writing] system had been introduced in thirty places in England.” The New Education, Vol. II, No. 5, September 1894, page 111 [20] Exactly how widespread was it? How many writers were using it? Had any professionals or librarians attempted to use it? Had any librarian in London mailed them a specimen? Was it seen by any of the men on their trips while visiting libraries? Further research will be required to know whether any of this may have occurred, but it is clear that Dewey was in communication with one or more librarians from England. [[21]]

History of the Adoption of Vertical Writing

While Dewey and the others sought to remove the personality from the writing, in most cases, writing was previously about expressing the character of the person, and the writing stood in for the person in his absence, as a letter of introduction. However, it is interesting to note that because the discussion at Lake George in no way centers on the writer and his or her needs, really, except for speed, it is very unusual. Shorthand is another kind of writing for which this is the case. Where almost all writing styles were and are driven by some connection to the history of previous penmen, the concept of joining lines, the motion of the arm, hand, fingers, and pen--here, the style and legibility of library hand itself, essentially a typewritten font--is the sole determinant.

Ironically, in all cases except for library hand, those wanting to adopt the vertical writing style had the concerns of the individual writer at the forefront. They abandoned the forward slanting style in favor of a vertical writing style (the larger class to which library hand belongs) for the health of the individual, to avoid spinal curvature and poor eyesight. This in many ways drives the adoption of vertical writing in Europe, Britain, Canada, and later the US. It is advocated by medical experts and scientists in Europe, John Jackson in England, and writing and medical experts in the United States. Further impetus is provided by the greater perceived legibility and ease of writing, in keeping with the ideas of the librarians.

While vertical writing was adopted by schools in many states, there appear to be some states that did not adopt it. And it was adopted somewhat unevenly, over time, by those remaining states; later, it fell away in at different times too. In some states, and in some libraries, this is an opportunity to see how library handwriting was introduced without any interference from the vertical style.

As an example of a state to explore for its introduction of library hand with no cross-influence from vertical hand, one might look to Tennessee, where it is stated in 1905: “Spencerian adopted by state board. System used in all schools. General satisfaction given. No desire to change.” This date comes after vertical style was falling out of favor, and it is very likely that this state never introduced it to its schools at all, yet I have not confirmed this at this time. See The School Journal, Vol. LXX, Investigation of Writing Systems, February 18, 1905, page 180. [22]

A state that may have some predictable cross influence is California, where they adopted a modified vertical writing that sloped slightly to the right, the California Vertical System developed by I. D. Rodgers and Belle Duncan. [23] [24]

There were still, though, some schools that used other vertical writing, such as the Newlands and Row, as introduced in Canada and later published in Canada and also in the U.S. [25]

And to further, to perhaps forever confuse the examination of cards in California and elsewhere, maybe, too, is that a newer variation of a right leaning script—not vertical, but with a true right slope and a introduced after vertical had been discredited was adopted by some schools.

Mention of that is here, in 1905, “Vertical system in use from four six years in all cities and most country schools. A growing tendency to adopt a form of which has a full open letter with a slight slant to right hand all loops and curves possible left off. Los Angeles San Francisco and Oakland systems adopted as above described in 1903." [26]

In California, one would expect to see a library hand that may also have a right sloping slant; or, perhaps one may see both the left sloping version among those adhering to the models of library hand as well as a right sloping version among librarians who attended schools using the California system in the years after its introduction. I am hoping some of these nuanced variations are possible to discover, and perhaps with carefully documented cards from individuals with a clear educational record and perhaps even school material, such seemingly impossible variations can be seen. Discovering the shift from the California system to the one that follows it? Well, this is another level of difficulty, and exactly why cards are needed.

Are these details too fine? Is it worth our pursuit? Keep in mind that conventional writing history often ignores library hand, vertical, and even the style that emerged shortly after vertical fell out of style. It is called a great number of names, but among them is “natural” such as in the Barnes Natural Slant Penmanship and “practical” such as in Spencer’s Practical Writing, both published in 1905. This is not a vertical writing, but it is an open and round style that descends from the history of the vertical. We will never be able to see these variations and distinguish among the regional and state and time variations from all of these until we look and make that attempt.

Contrasting Library Handwriting to the Handwriting of Librarians

I have been able to collect images of dozens of letters from librarians around the country as well as from Dewey and some of the others who are cited in the Lake George meeting. The variety in the handwriting of these letters is great, and I will admit to wondering, while I was reading through them, in Dewey’s papers form the ALA, if in fact the vast correspondence that Dewey engaged himself in was a reason that he had adopted the typewriter [[27]] so early in his library and why he insists on some better style of handwriting. One can only imagine that a man of such efficiency and drive and desire to improve his profession must have privately tallied the extra time he spent trying to read notes from other librarians. While this is purely a personal response of my own, I suspect the reader may also gasp at some of the writing and its difficulty to read.

Yes, Horace Greeley had worse handwriting, and although he was a congressman, he was not a librarian. For anyone who thinks that they have seen bad handwriting, I offer his work for your scorn. [[28]] (This letter is courtesy Leigh A. Webb, a member of the Manuscript Society from Franklin, New Hampshire.)

I invite readers to send scans of letters from their own librarians to help me fill these pages so that we can have a better cross-section form around the country, from small libraries as well as large, and from those less well know than these libraries here. Please feel free to send links to biographical information and your own library’s history. If you find some link to the ALA, to Dewey, or to other people mentioned in this article, please let me know. This tapestry of letters and histories can only enrich us, and help establish better the use of the kinds of writing used by librarians and the divide they may have spanned while writing both personal letters in one style while writing library hand at other times.

For now, I share with you the writing of George Watson Cole, who was in the first set of twenty students enrolled in the library school at Columbia College, which began in January of 1887. Here, we can see a page that he wrote for Compiling a Bibliography. [29]

Interesting, I think, is that he also mentions that this item can be “used as a card-catalogue or fastened together in pamphlet form.” If this could in fact be “used as a card catalogue,” then should it not be in a true library hand as Dewey encouraged, or shall we say, more accurately, as he demanded?

What is immediately noticeable is that the script of George Watson Cole has as its origin a Spencerian or earlier style in terms of a good number of the letterforms and some right slope, yet one can also see a vertical style or library hand as well. In some words, one can see letters with both a left and a right slope. Some words are even divided in half, with the letters on the one side sloping to the left, and the others to the right. One could assume that hand placement on the paper is likely the reason for this, and likely too the personal history of George Watson Cole himself, for he started his schooling for library late in life, at the age of 35, and his habits of writing were formed already and ossified, more so than a younger person entering the college. So in his writing we see the tension of both his old habits and learning as well as the new style that he learned in library school. [Special thanks to Laurin Paradise and Jean Hines for discovering this book and page in their Pratt Institute Libraries collection.)

On the spine of a second copy of the book, from Cornell University, which almost certainly employed librarians trained in the rules of the New York State system, one can see the disjoined hand. [30]

Here are the notes of a student in Dr. Melvil Dewey’s class in October 7, 1903. With writing that has elements of an earlier style as well as of library hand, this is a mixed form. [31]

The Handwriting of Librarians Today

Librarians today now spend most of their time typing on a keyboard, and most of their handwriting is limited to short notes rather than to catalogs and business letters. However, to bring our history up to the present and to document the handwriting of today's librarians, it is important that we add theirs (and yours) too.

Please consider sending scans (300dpi) of several samples of your best and worst handwriting, a letter or note you have previously written (this will eliminate any chance that you might try to send your perfect handwriting). These can be material related to your library as long as you have approval. Make sure the material is not copyrighted.

Please do not feel self-conscious about your writing style or wording or spelling. Language is currently evolving at a fast pace, and those idiosyncrasies and variations in your writing are central to the research I am doing. If you want to supply a writing sample from several years ago and one from now that demonstrate this change, please do so.

Of course you are invited to send scans of old library card catalogs or other handwritten material that you think is of interest. If you can date it, that is even better.

I welcome your help and support, as library hand and the handwriting of librarians is an importance part of the history of American handwriting, and you can enrich the record through your participation.