Monday, January 15, 2018

Cursive, you're history

Went last week to hear City of Toronto Archivist Carol Radford-Grant give the Howland Lecture for the York Historical Society on the subject of archives and the digital realm.

It seemed no big news that the city archives has 12,000 Twitter followers. Doesn't everybody have thousands of Twitter followers? But Radford-Grant pointed out that is more people than visit the archives -- a beautiful modern, accessible facility on Spadina Road below Casa Loma -- in a year.

And keep that quill pen sharp, too.
Even more striking was her evidence of how archives are responding to that kind of user data. The city's digitization efforts emphasize picture and map collections, because the online appetite for images is huge. Mere text documents, well, they don't have the same kind of takeup. Inevitably their place in the archival hierarchy at a public institution has to decline.  The handfuls of researchers who come in to spend long stretches of time working through collections of serial documents are no longer the key clients of archives, let us say.

And handwritten documents? It seems there is a calamity falling there that I had been largely unaware of. For one thing, handwritten docs largely resist optical character recognition software. They can be scanned, but not made machine-searchable -- so they are losers in the online universe. And increasingly, archives are finding that users just are not willing to look at handwritten sources  -- that is, practically the whole documentary record of anything before the twentieth century. A growing number of us rarely read or write cursive text now, and apparently the will and ability to do so is declining fast. Even Grandma now sends her notes to the kids by Facebook or text message, Radford-Grant observed.

And so archival attention and budgeting go elsewhere, to where the audience has gone. To stave off the death of the handwritten document altogether, some archives are launching crowd-sourced volunteer projects to have cursive-text documents individually transcribed into word-processed versions. Whaaa...?

I'm working up a column for Canada's History on some of the amazing things digitization is doing to and for historical practice. I ain't trying to be luddite about this. But I started his career using a hand-crank microfilm like the one above to read documents handwritten in 18th century French. When Radford-Grant showed a picture of one of her archives's few remaining microfilm readers and described the horrors of using one, and the audience burst out in laughter at the sheer archaic horror of it, I felt distinctly out of step with the world.

However.  There are still people who learn Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Linear B of clay tablets, Someone will master cursive if they have to, I guess.

Update, January 17:  Alan McCullough recalls:
I used a Recordak reader like the one pictured when I joined the PAC in 1968. I learned that, on slow afternoons, I could put my head against the overhead frame and doze, reasonably unobserved.

While crowd sourcing the ‘translation’ of cursive documents seems unlikely, it is not impossible. The crowd sourced “Automated Genealogy” indexed most of the Canadian census well before the project was taken up by one of the commercial genealogy companies.

Digitization of newspapers, with search functions, is one of the most significant changes. Over the past decade I have been researching, sporadically, the history of canoe clubs in Ottawa. Although I researched microfilm copies of newspapers before digitization, it was always very time consuming and rather hit or miss. Since digitization, with searchable functions, my research has been much more extensive. I realize some of the dangers of relying almost solely on newspapers, but, in the era I was interested in – 1880-1950 - they were almost the only source of detailed information.
Meanwhile, at Unwritten Histories, Stephanie Pettigrew devotes a long and detailed guest post to the pleasures and perils of paleography, that is, the science of reading old handwriting. And she kindly includes a linkback to this post of mine.

Update, February 14:  Frank Rockland alerts us to an Atlas Obscura profile of someone who has made a business of reading the handwriting no one else can.
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