The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The National Archives has billions of handwritten documents. With cursive skills declining, how will we read them?

(Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare/for The Washington Post)

The seventh-graders from Berkshire Country Day School in Stockbridge, Mass., bend close over a handwritten copy of the Judiciary Act of 1789, expanded large, in the basement of the National Archives. “Oh, that’s an ‘A,’ ” one boy says with a flash of insight. “This is, like, really skinny writing.”

A girl tries to make out the squiggly handwritten characters on the page: “Smile ... by the ... sardine?” she reads. Hmm. It’s not very likely the first Congress wrote that.

Leigh Doherty, associate head of the school, looks on. She admits that, even though the private school offers a cursive-writing class called Handwriting Without Tears for younger students, most revert to printing “as soon as they can.”

We all know that cursive has gone out of style. To modern young people, deciphering the wavy old-fashioned script can seem as relevant as dialing a rotary phone or milking a cow. For institutions like the National Archives, this poses a very specific problem. The archive is “sitting on 15 billion pieces of paper and parchment,” says David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, and as much as 80 percent of it is in cursive. With schools today emphasizing keyboarding over handwriting, numerous documents — from the Constitution to the correspondence of Abraham Lincoln to the diary of a Gold Rush traveler — may soon appear as foreign as ancient Sanskrit to most American children. “We’re sacrificing generations of students who won’t be able to read our records,” says Ferriero.

The Archives, along with a host of other institutions, has a long-term solution that would address this problem: enlisting an army of “citizen archivists” — via a medley of crowdsourcing initiatives, transcribe-a-thons and transcription field days — to type out the nation’s mega-trove of handwritten documents for the Web. The only ­­sticking point, of course, is that declining cursive literacy makes assembling that army a challenge.

In 2011, the Archives launched its Citizen Archivist Dashboard, an online portal where 13,645 people have so far performed some transcription. The Archives also offers learning labs in which visiting students look at a variety of documents, including a 1958 letter that schoolgirls wrote to President Dwight D. Eisenhower asking him not to let the Army cut Elvis Presley’s hair, and a ledger kept by Benjamin Franklin. (One of the funny asides, says Archives education specialist Amber Kraft, is that schoolchildren sometimes ask her whether they have to use cursive if they send letters to the president.)

Last fall, the Library of Congress got into the act, rolling out an initiative called By the People, a website where volunteers can transcribe items such as the journals of African American leader Mary Church Terrell, letters written to Lincoln, or the writings of Civil War veterans who had lost limbs in the conflict. Georgetown University history professor Chandra Manning got her class working on the letters-to-Lincoln project. At first, she says, the students were frustrated, but eventually they got it. “That’s somebody’s actual handwriting there,” she says. “There’s a certain intimacy, of suddenly making a connection with another person across time.”

When Sarah Gehant, an eighth-grade teacher at Northbrook School in Mendota, Ill., showed her students letters written by Civil War veterans who had lost their right arms and were entering a left-handed writing competition, the “kids were like, ‘What? This really happened?’ ” she recalls. Gehant told them: “No one would really know about it unless you transcribe it. Otherwise, it just sits in a box in an archive.” The class worked together to transcribe one document, which culminated in a four-minute debate over a single punctuation mark. “We had three different interpretations,” she says. “Some thought it was a comma, some thought it was a semicolon, and some ignored it because they thought it was a flick of a pen.”

When Jacqueline Antonovich, who teaches history at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., assigned her class some transcription, they got stuck on deciphering certain words. So they put the image on Twitter and got an answer almost immediately from a group called #twitterstorians. It was another great way to crowdsource historical work, she says.

Ford’s Theatre has also gotten into the transcription game. Its Remembering Lincoln project has reached out to schools to help with transcribing about 850 documents, newspaper articles and images recording contemporary reactions to the former president’s assassination.

The Smithsonian, with its 19 museums and nine research centers, offers up a quirky collection of papers to transcribe, including such items as the notes of Harvard’s 19th- and early-20th-century “women computers” — scientists who catalogued the stars and made discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics. Popular items such as the jokes Phyllis Diller scrawled on index cards were finished off pretty quickly, notes Effie Kapsalis, the Smithsonian’s senior digital program officer.

At some point, machines will take over; optical character recognition, or OCR, will be able to do much of the job of transcription. But that could be years from now. In the meantime, we can take some inspiration from the D.C. middle and high school students who came to the Library of Congress late last year to transcribe a draft of the Gettysburg Address. At first, says Meghan Ferriter, an innovation specialist at the library, the students insisted, “ ‘We can’t read it!’ Then they just took off.”

Debra Bruno is a writer in Washington.

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