Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Accessing the Past: Why Paleography Skills Still Matter

· March 21st, 2019 · 3 Comments

Learn more about paleography at our first Transcribathon on Saturday, March 23, 2019, in the Ford Classroom, ground floor of Swem Library, on the campus of William & Mary. We will begin at 11:00 a.m. and continue until 4:00 p.m. Participants are welcome to drop in for an hour or to stay all afternoon. Lunch and snacks will be available. Julie Fisher will lead the workshop.

by Julie A. Fisher, American Philosophical Society

Democratizing the archives, decolonizing the archives, digitizing the archives—these are phrases animating discussions and driving important institutional changes throughout the library and archival world. On some level, each one is concerned with access to the past, in particular, who has access to which pasts. In this context, old-fashioned paleography skills counterintuitively remain important by allowing access points to the ever-expanding treasure trove of digital material.

When I took my first paleography course through the Folger Shakespeare and Newberry Libraries, I simply wanted to be able to read the unpublished manuscripts of seventeenth-century New England—county records, court depositions, and correspondences—and to read them in a timely manner. Becoming a better reader—which at the time I believed meant a faster reader—would simply allow me to work more efficiently. Ironically, once I returned to the records armed with my new skills, I discovered that reading quickly was less pressing than taking more time with individual manuscripts.

The additional time manuscripts required became more urgent when I began uncovering what other scholars had warned me about: Victorian editors had excised material they deemed inappropriate or embarrassing from the New England town records they published. Sometimes these Victorian editors would alert you to the existence of the material they excised, but other times they did not. Most memorably was the time my research partner and I, while reading through the original manuscript town records on Long Island, discovered an entry where town officers charged two Englishmen with having consenting sexual relations. We turned to the published edition we had brought with us, but there was no mention of the case. Using the published versions will always be useful, but some scholarship remains possible only in manuscript form.

Paleography can also unlock another form of access in manuscripts: access to the historical actors themselves. Handwriting can disclose a writer’s identity on an otherwise unsigned petition, just as their hand (that is the way they individually formed their letters) can suggest their educational training. Their hand can even reveal the ravages of time or illness when an otherwise careful hand begins to shake. Talk to a scholar who has spent time with manuscripts and they will tell you a story about the moments when words gained additional significance because of lingering clues on the page.

Beyond that, there is a type of access that is difficult to quantify but exists all the same: the researcher’s emotional responses to the manuscript’s writer. Reading a heart-breaking petition in print can be sad enough; seeing such words put down in the petitioner’s own hand can pack an unexpected emotional punch. I recently transcribed a petition by an Englishmen suing to cover the costs of burying a Wampanoag woman who had died while working for him, and then additional money for caring for the child she left behind. Whether he was grieved by this situation is difficult to say, but when I considered that the hand that penned the petition was the same one caring (or even not caring) for the child was an emotional moment for me. Most people from early America did not leave behind portraits, but the existence of such letters, petitions, and commonplace books can provide an all too rare glimpse into these lives.

The Folger Shakespeare Library, an institution that regularly offers training in English secretary hand, has shown that the practice of transcribing amplifies and extends the benefits of paleography. Skimming comes easy to busy researchers, and it can be tempting to skip over difficult lettering or unfamiliar wording given the nature of the project or the real time constraints of projects. Transcribing, however, affords no such refuge from the sticking points of the past. A transcriber must confront every strange turn of phrase, quirk in capitalization, or phonetic spelling. Transcribing encourages, as Heather Wolfe at the Folger Shakespeare Library reminds her students, “slow reading,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Having taught paleography for years, Wolfe encourages her students to use slow reading to develop a deeper level of engagement with the text. Recent studies on reading, as Karin Wulf has pointed out, speak to value of attending to our reading practices. The practice of slow reading is seemingly at odds with our lived reading habits today, but that may be why students of paleography find transcribing so compelling.

Paleography remains a vital tool in the historian’s tool kit. With the rise of digitization projects within libraries and archives around the world, these skills make more and more collections engaging to researchers, students, and educators requiring nothing more than access to the internet—and, of course, the paleography skills to access them.

For more on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s work in paleography and transcribing see:

On the Mellon Summer Paleography Institutes through the Newberry Library, see:

On Karin Wulf’s recent review on reading practices

A recent post on the value of speed in the archive (made possible by paleography skills), see

3 Responses

  1. Nice. Takes me aĺl the way back to my own earliest days! and shortcomings. The Folger arms scholars for the sources in ways I then had to improvise to find the/a meaning. I remember working all day to deciphet a late 17th century document on the Msc. file of the Mass Historical Society, together with their expert, only tp discover that they had transcribed and printed it in their publications years before. And they got s word that we could not. Or hunting for a Latin verb Robert Bolling had later savagely crossed out in his original notebook. We tried many, the experts and I, all making no sense. A year later, realizing that we had misread a single letter in that verb form, unlocked it all. A year later.

    • Julie Fisher says:

      Thank you for sharing a story from the archive, I’ve had a few of those moments (also at MHS) myself. I remain in awe of all the scholars I meet who taught themselves secretary hand, which usually seems to have happened while they were in the archives with a lot of material to get through and never enough time. I think that will be increasingly difficult in decades to come given the number of students who are not taught to read or write cursive. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have benefited from training through the Folger Shakespeare Library (under Dr. Heather Wolfe) and I think that is why I try to pay it forward whenever I can. And I’m sorry you won’t be able to join our paleography competitions tomorrow, I’ve got a few fun surprises from New England in store for everyone.

  2. I will miss the Folger’s help,as I’m aging away here in Sweden, but they need it here too. In some localities, my wife has discovered, the only battles over church seating one can follow are those that end up on the diocesan level, where they are copied in a good hand. Parish originals are presently unreadable, so terrible (deliberately?) is the priest’s handwriting. A lady from the Royal Library has just retired here, so we will go to her in seeking help.

    Good luck, you are very persuasive in foreseeing generations who read only print at best. If we do not lose our present, maybe we can save the past. And regain our sense that we can know the past. Thank you.

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