The Context and History of Library Hand
When he writes slowly and with care--from fifteen to twenty-five words a minute--Mr. Edison's handwriting is phenomenally clear and beautiful, resembling copperplate printing; not in a flowing, but in a cramped hand, the letters often being separated as in print. When he rises to forty words a minute, the writing is still more cramped and less beautiful, though yet legible; with forty-nine words a minute, his writing is quite illegible.
The editor of the Penman's Art Journal collected over fifty specimens of this kind of writing and found only one who wrote with as great a slant as that which we have been teaching. In any kind of business, the more speed required in writing, the nearer the vertical it will be. Journalists and telegraph operators furnish proof of the above statement, for they are compelled to write very rapidly and invariably write the vertical style. What is known among operators as good writing, is a round, upright hand. Good, because it is easily read and easily written. These men cannot hold their positions unless they can write rapidly, and they write the vertical style because it enables them to do better work and more of it.
Telegraphers Are Mainly Responsible for Its Introduction Here.If the vertical handwriting which is being taught in our public schools schools prevails, and becomes the ordinary handwriting, the people who enjoy its advantages will have in large measure the telegraphers to thank for it. They have been the pioneers of vertical writing. For the last twenty years almost every telegraph operator in the country has written a round, vertical hand, plainer than any other sort of handwriting known, with round, fat loops for the letters which drop below the line, and simple capitals. This telegrapher's handwriting has much in common with the English "civil service handwriting," which may have preceded it, but the civil service hand is less often vertical and has certain points of difference. Men's handwriting tends in a general way to conform to the fashion of Roman print prevalent at any time, and as the most ordinary print letter nowadays is of a round or Scottish face, it is not strange on the whole that the tendency in handwriting is toward a round letter. Women's chirography is more capricious in its fashion, though it has inclined pretty steadily now for several years toward angular Briticism.
Do telegraphers write vertically, or do they have an individual slant? Teachers, why not go to them and find out? They are your neighbors, and your friends, and their experience is worthy of consideration. Read the following:Office of Western Union Telegraph Company, Emporia, Kansas, December 17, 1895.Prof. W.C. Stevenson,Dear Sir:-- I am not in favor of vertical writing for the reason that it is impossible to make speed. The pose is awkward, and the act of writing becomes laborious and tiresome. I deny that telegraphers as a class use the vertical system.Very respectfully, C.W. Cleaver, Telegrapher.(Slant 24 degrees to right)Santa Fe Depot, Emporia, Kansas, December 19, 1895.W.C. Stevenson, Esq.,Department Bookkeeping and Penmanship, State Normal School.Dear Sir: Replying to yours of the 16th inst. in regard to vertical writing I will endeavor to answer your questions as best I know how 1. Plain and even, devoid of much shading and flourishing, such as the Spencerian. 2. My writing slants. 3. I place the paper at right angles to the forearm. 4. Forearm action. 5. Do not consider vertical writing suited to the demands of business, especially for telegraph operators, with whom speed and legibility are most essential. I consider vertical writing too slow for the telegraph business and never saw an operator use it.Yours truly, H.C. Roehkig, Telegraph Operator.(Slant 28 degrees to right.)Emporia, Kansas, December 17, 1895.Prof. W.C. Stevenson, Kansas State Normal School.Dear Sir:-- In reply to your letter of the 16th inst. will say that I consider the essentials of a good style of handwriting to be legibility, speed, ease of execution and compactness. In writing I always place the paper at right angles to the forearm, and use the forearm movement assisted by a slight action of the fingers. I do not consider the so called "vertical" system suitable for a business hand as it seems to me to be unnatural, and presents a scrawling, boy-like appearance and is not to be compared to the easy, flowing, and yet compact, words as they appear when written by your system. Yours respectfully, H.W. Fisher, Teller, Citizens Bank.(Slant 37 degrees to right.)
Whether the writer was an evangel or a bunco fiend still it can not be denied that there are certain styles of writing generally characteristic of various vocations or business occupations irrespective of the (im) moral tendencies of the writers. Among the most marked illustrations is the writing of telegraph operators.
There are certain types of writing developed in various occupations that have well known characteristics. One of these hands is that used by the telegraph operator….The manipulation of the telegrapher’s key develops a certain muscular action and skill which, no doubt, affects the writing process, and the necessity for continuity, speed and legibility, and the natural desire to copy the style of those already expert all lead to the result shown….The literary hand, the railroad style and the writing of the business clerk or bookkeeper each have certain well defined characteristics which are partly developed by the conditions and in a measure are also a result of imitation.
This style of the telegraph operator—“railroad style,” as he calls it, can be seen in figure 67 on page 144.
As he describes it, it is “Five words to line, typical word connections and circle small "o's." He adds, “the railroad clerk whose work requires boldness, strength, speed and legibility, develops a style that requires much room and is just the opposite of effeminate. The telegraph operator becomes so accustomed to writing five words to a line on telegraph blanks that he must resist his natural impulse or in any writing his hand will count off five words to a line.”
This extended discussion on "telegraph hand" or "railroad hand," while a detour from the topic of library handwriting, helps better illustrate the variety of writing in this time period, and it further allows one to see the innovation of Edison as he moved to separate letters, as Dewey did later, too. And these samples help one see clearly what each style looks like relative to the other styles discussed.
I came across some handwritten notes by Lord Palmerston in the Foreign Office files in the National Archives. Dated between the 1830s and the 1860s, they document Palmerston’s obsessive concern with the quality of handwriting produced by FO clerks and consuls. Throughout his long career in government Palmerston fired off regular protests at the bureaucratic shortcomings of his office staff. Numerous notes in his own hand inveigh against illegible handwriting, weak syntax, sloppy style and deficient punctuation skills, as well as the poor quality of pen-nibs and the paleness of the ink used by his underlings.
Foreign Office,[blank]I am directed by Viscount Palmerstonto observe to [blank] that your Despatchesare not easily legible, in consequence of the paleness ofthe Ink used in copying them; and I am to requestthat you will give directions that all Papers sent to thisOffice from your [blank] may be copied inblack Ink, and in a large round hand.I have the honour to be,[blank]Most obedienthumble Servant.
This address led Mr. Vere Foster, an amateur educationist, to direct his attention to the preparation of a series of copy books in which the views of Lord Palmerston have been carried out. They were submitted in manuscript to Lord Palmerston who thus wrote to the author:--. . . "I am sure people could all write and read well, and speak plain, if they would only take the trouble, but some prefer a scrawl, and feel proud of it as a peculiarity. Lord Palmerston is an enemy to the up-strokes being too thin, and contrasting too much with the down-strokes. He has therefore scratched over with his pen two of your lines, to show that all the letters should be well rounded and clear, and the up-strokes sufficiently dark not to deceive the eye, otherwise the letters seem to be only half formed."These suggestions were adopted, and almost the last letter written by that illustrious statesman was in relation to these copy-books. He says, October 3, 1865,-- "Lord Palmerston is very much pleased with your copy-books and other papers, and the success you appear to have had on this subject in every way, and he has not the slightest objection to your calling them 'The Palmerston Series of Copy-Books'; and he wishes you all success in this useful and benevolent undertaking."
"selected samples of handwriting...were returned with a letter from the Prime Minister's wife saying: 'Lord Palmerston is an Enemy to the upstrokes being two (sic) thin and contrasting too much with the downstrokes. He has therefore scratched over with his Pen two of your lines to shew that all the letters should be rounded and clear -- and the Upstrokes sufficiently dark not to deceive the Eye, otherwise the letters seem only half formed."
CONSIDER CAROLINE (CARRIE) F. PIERCE AS THE CREATOR OF LIBRARY HAND
Rather than let it persist for decades more that Edison and Dewey were co-creators of "library hand," please look to Caroline (Carrie) F. Pierce as the person who created the first letterforms that came to be known as "library hand." While Dewey and Edison are given credit, there is evidence that Dewey used the writing of a student in his first library school class as the model. As recalled on page 13 of the 1949 autobiography 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. (This information was brought to my attention by Jane Siegel, librarian, Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library.) See my work on Pierce in the short essay "The Origins of Library Handwriting, from Carrie F. Pierce to Melvil Dewey."
As a brief aside, the personal handwriting of Carrie F. Pierce which is archived at Wellesley College Library where she worked bears no resemblance to library hand. However, the official paperwork of the library during her time there does show a competent use of library handwriting.
The myth of Edison and Dewey as co-creators is everywhere: in books in 2014 and 2015 and in websites such as Wikipedia, here as a link and as a captured image; also, at the wiki History of the card catalog, here as a link and as a captured image. These mistakes are not anomalies, but demonstrate part of a larger issue faced by researchers in American handwriting and penmanship now and in the past. There are too few people doing work in the field and the facts are difficult to check and to verify. At a time when the internet and Wikipedia are supposed to be reliable, it makes sense for writers to expect it to be a good source. Judging from the dates listed, the incorrect information appears to have remained on the wiki library site from at least 2011, and of course these postings still remain on the sites at the time of the revision of this section of the article, in 2023. These are but just two of the many mistakes or misinformation in this field, and I would propose that authors and researchers work together to eliminate some of the misinformation that continues to be perpetuated.
November 3rd. 6Melvil Dewey, Esq.,Columbia College, 29th Street & Madison Avenue, City.Dear Sir:-Referring to your favor of the 21st. ulto., which hasremained unanswered owing to Mr. Edison's absence from the City,I beg to enclose you what he considers the quickest method of writing.Mr. Edison used this method when he was a telegraph operatortaking Associated Press Reports, and he claims that he couldwrite more rapidly and with less fatigue than by any other means.You will notice every letter is written separately.Yours very truly,Enc. Private Secretary.
TYPE-WRITERS IN LIBRARIES.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.
LIBRARY HANDWRITING.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," (Number for August 21 ; 6 : 46) [This original note is mistaken. The last numeral is a page number, which should be 146, as is seen in the image provided. Therefore, it is properly thus: Number for August 21 ; 6 : 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.
Image from the Melvil Dewey papers, The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University
And here, as a penultimate sample, is printed material of "Topics for Chicago Meeting" for the 1893 American Library Association conference in Chicago, in which one can see library hand and print together. (This too is from the Melvil Dewey papers, The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University.) Of note, one can also see shorthand and blue colored pencil--Dewey used both in this period of time--and that suggests that this might be his library handwriting as well. This image appears to show the work of a number of people, and this is a reasonable assumption since items did circulate among the committees.
John Jackson, the most prominent of the promoters of the vertical style in England writes a chapter on the "History of Vertical Writing and its Revival" on page 118 of his book Theory and Practice of Handwriting that “concurrent agitations dated from about the year 1870 to the year 1887 when the two forces combined (each being complementary to the other)” were responsible for the move to upright penmanship in England. This book provides considerable detail about the different people and countries in Europe studying the vertical style as a remedy to poor eyesight and bad posture among students. He also makes the argument in the beginning of this chapter on page 111 that "The History of Vertical Writing is the History of all Writing, as, up to about the middle of the 16th century such a thing as Sloping Writing was unknown." This idea we will have to set aside for a separate discussion.
As for the origins of library hand, one might conjecture that this debate over writing styles may have been known by these widely read librarians. With voracious reading habits, staff to help, and access to a plentitude of material, the knowledge of the growing complaints of sloping writing and the momentum to change to vertical writing seems plausible.
Messrs. Sampson, Low, Marston & Co. viewed the matter favorably from the first: the agreement was drawn out and signed, the books put in hand, and the first series of headline copy-books in upright penmanship ever produced appeared in the month of November, 1886.
Vertical handwriting is not new, for it has been used more or less by penmen for the last twenty years. It is not, however, as some suppose, a modification of the round hand which was at one time the accepted copy for school children by reason of the scope that it allowed for the practice of form. Vertical writing as a system of penmanship was first introduced in Germany, where so much interest has been taken in recent years in the hygienic conditions of school life.
EARLY MANUSCRIPT EVIDENCE OF LIBRARY HANDWRITING
It is hard to know the many influences and the decision making process regarding the creation of library handwriting in between the September 1885 meeting and the March 1887 printing in Library Notes. The most important change is the emergence of Dewey's first class of library students and the emergence of Caroline (Carrie) F. Pierce as the student who named my a classmate as the person who created "Library hand."
What changes or decisions might have been made about each letterform? Were different sets of letterforms used and discarded? There is not enough evidence to outline this. However, some material does point to an early style that pre-dates the published version.
In February 1887, a month before the first printed article on library handwriting, a postcard is mailed from Columbia College Library with what is an early version of library handwriting, as one can see on its front and back. The writing conforms to some of the final rules and shares some of the final letterforms. Of note, the "r" and "s" are forms that are introduced later in 1887 in "disjoined hand," and on this card one sees script as well as a disjoined hand. Although Dewey’s signature is printed on the card, there is no reason to assume that it is his writing. Because his writing in general lacks basic regularity and control, it seems more likely that a person working under his direction wrote it. Could he have written it? Possibly. But it doesn’t seem likely. What does seem true is that Dewey did want to share the new style and to encourage its use. As an indefatigable self-promoter, it is not surprising that he wants this style not only on a card to be left in a drawer in his own library, but also on a postcard that others will look at, notice, and perhaps imitate.
It remains to discuss main question, the forms of letters which will give the greatest legibility. Of some letters the copy-books give as many as 20 different forms from which people select the style that suits their taste, as ladies choose ribbons for their bonnets.The rubric that all catalogers should write a uniform standard library hand, makes it necessary at once to throw out 19 of these 20 forms. At once all see that where the highest legibility is more important than all else together, we must prohibit peremptorily everything in the nature of ornament or flourish. The simpler and fewer the lines the better, as long as the distinctness of the letter is not impaired.
This card, from the Providence Athenaeum in Providence, Rhode Island, has writing that appears to span the years before and after the introduction of library hand. One sees what looks like an accession date of April 9, 1888, a Spencerian script with varying width of stroke both up and down as well as the "ornament" and "flourish" Dewey mentioned as impediments to the public's ease of reading, erasure, and numerals added in the place of the erasure--interestingly, from the Dewey Decimal Classification System--that are in a library hand style.
VARIED INTERPRETATIONS OF LIBRARY HANDWRITING AS SEEN IN EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE
* * * * * * * * * * *
Handbook of the New York State Library School, including summer course and library handwriting
Note: Also issued, with Library school bulletin 10, as appendix 3, of the State library report for 1901. Cover title.
One way to understand how the principles of library handwriting were understood and applied over time is to look at a sample of cards from a variety of years, beyond the sample above.
A HISTORY OF LIBRARY HANDWRITING, IN CORRESPONDENCE AND RELATED DOCUMENTS
The teacher in the department of commerce of Pratt Institute prefers the slant letters, but the vertical system is taught in the department of libraries, as that writing is universally accepted as the best style for cars, labels, indexing, etc. It is done with such care that hose engaged in it appear to be drawing rather than writing.
By contrast, in 1922, Dorcas Fellows, instructor in advanced cataloging at the New York State Library School publishes his Cataloging Rules, second edition revised and enlarged, with a dedication to Dr. Melvil Dewey, “founder of the first library school and the leader to whom all library workers are under infinite obligation.” And Dorcas includes a half page section that discusses handwritten cards that indicates that “All library cards should be written as neatly and legibly as possible, the disjoined hand being preferable, since that most resembles print.” One can see a manuscript card on page 46 as well as call numbers added in manuscript throughout the book. Also interesting is that this particular digital copy has marginalia, notes, corrections, and its own pencil version of library hand.
This page references:
- Providence Athenaeum, Music theory
- Providence Athenaeum, Music history, April 9, 1888
- Melvil Dewey_Shelf list rules_1890_sample page 1
- Railroad style
- Library hand, 1887
- Chester W Merrill to Melvil Dewey_August 18, 1885, close up
- Platt Rogers Spencer, 1856: "Many writers write like me"
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania, library catalog card, circa 1909
- Melvil Dewey_Accession Book Rules_1890_sample page 1
- Library hand catalog card sample, 1898
- Houghton Library, Harvard University. Catalog card, Boston Theatre, disjoined hand
- C R Van Benthuysen to Melvil Dewey, August 25, 1885
- Melvil Dewey_Rules for author and classed catalogs as used in Columbia College Library_1888_sample cards 1
- Example of Thomas Edison's writing while working as a Morse telegrapher in 1868
- E M Coe Feb 11 1887_close up
- Joind hand, sentences; alternativ forms
- Tray of Library Bureau card catalog
- Library handwriting, disjoind hand, 1898
- Georg Ebers, catalog page from NY Society Library circa 1883 to 1887
- Comparison of library handwriting 1887 - 1916, Melvil Dewey and the NY State Library School
- Melvil Dewey_Shelf list rules_1890_Sample page 2
- Columbia University, Catalog card Lee
- Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, Rhode Island.
- C R Van Benthuysen to Melvil Dewey_August 25 1885_close up
- Digest of new publications_1880_No 2_Astory Library
- Melvil Dewey postcard February 7 1887_back, close-up
- Digest of new publications_1880_No 2_Astor Library_sample page 1
- Library handwriting, disjoined hand, 1887
- Dewey note, dictated and typed, 1885
- Florence B Goodrich_Letter to Melvil Dewey_August 3 1885_close up
- Jackson New Style Vertical Copy Books_Advertising, Feb 1, 1887
- State Library_Boston MA_Letter to Melvil Dewey_May 22 1885 close up
- Astor Library New York catalogue additions_small