Leah Grandy, of the Loyalist Collection at the University of New Brunswick Libraries, has a few recent(-ish) posts on paleography, or deciphering historical handwriting. Grandy notes here that paleography training—previously thought to be necessary only for people studying medieval and early modern texts, which may be written in styles such as blackletter or secretary hand that they don’t necessarily encounter much in their modern lives—may also need to be extended to students and researchers of later centuries as well. Cursive, previously a staple of early education, is no longer taught in many schools, and as a result, undergrads are arriving at college who have trouble reading 18th-20th century handwritten primary sources. As someone who has deciphered written annotations for the Women Writers Project and sometimes transcribes documents on Shakespeare’s World for fun, I’m used to people recoiling in fear and/or disgust at the idea of facing down secretary hand, but it’s strange for me to think about people having a similar reaction to cursive!
In this post, Grandy offers a really helpful set of tips for reading or transcribing handwritten documents—whatever style they’re written in. Among them: comparing unclear letters/words to identifiable ones; looking up people and places; transcribing what you can identify and leaving blanks before coming back; guessing and going with your gut! If you’re a student or researcher dealing with handwritten primary sources, check it out.