Handwriting

Digital devices, so the story goes, are transforming everything. The assessments are divided, of course, about whether the changes are for the better or the worse. We are also increasingly reminded that there are pushbacks. Anne Trubek, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016) provides, as the title suggests, both a history and assessment of the nature of handwriting, joining the growing number of volumes on topics like paper and other analog mechanisms. Trubek, a writer and publisher, writes candidly about her topic, one she obviously believes is important.

Trubek gracefully moves through the various historical methods of writing and recording (this is not a scholarly work, but it is one worth reading on a cold day while seated away from computers and other distractions). She characterizes early writing, connecting them to contemporary issues, such as follows: “We may, in fact, be becoming more like the Sumerians with every passing year. Most of us carry small, palm-sized writing tablets made of a durable material. And cuneiform feels – materially – more similar to my daily experience of writing than do the sheets of paper in elementary school classrooms” (p. 12). This is the kind of expansive perspective that is the most useful to have, one seeing the connections between earlier communication approaches rather than dysfunctional or revolutionary breakthroughs wrought by the latest gee-whiz technology.

Skepticism about new writing and publishing technologies are nothing new, and Trubek cites diatribes against the printing press and even new handwritten scripts. We need to be reminded about our general tendency both to embrace and reject innovations, especially as doing this can remind us of our sometimes dramatic predictions about technology in our lives. The author reminds us that learning something as seemingly mundane as handwriting is intertwined with lots of other stuff: “Students who learned to write in America, from its earliest days through the first half of the twentieth century, were learning a lot more than just their letters. They were learning Christian and national values” (p. 82).

When we think of handwriting today we tend to reflect about those who contend that they can discern personality types or who claim to be able to detect forged handwriting and signatures. These are relatively recent notions: “Only once typing became the de facto method to conduct business correspondence and keep records, did handwriting assume the association we have with it today: a way to express one’s uniqueness and personality. It is only in the twentieth century that handwriting becomes evidence of – and a way to analyze – the individual psyche” (p. 97). Archivists know, however, that the interest in detecting forgeries, altered documents, and other documentary problems date back hundreds of years ago. Trubek does discuss the rise of digital forensics for authenticating documents, something we are beginning to see in information and other schools as courses.

This is an interesting read, one that will make to think about some of your own assumptions about writing. It is also a fun read. Did you know that we have a National Handwriting Day? It is on January 23rd, John Hancock’s birthday – a logical choice. Now you know and can plan your own way to celebrate.

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