Friday, January 20, 2012

Muse of the Week: Legibility

I started research in the papers of former Oregon Governor Tom McCall yesterday afternoon, and I'm having a delightful time... three (thick) folders in, and I've already been able to cite phrases including "pious buzzards," "Hell with that" and "like lecturing inside a dishwasher." This man would have gotten along famously with reporters even if he hadn't been a newsman himself.

One minor quibble: the man's handwriting--and there's a lot of it, as one might expect (the above phrases definitely do not connote organized speech preparation by committee)--is positively atrocious. Word to the wise: if you expect to accomplish things worthy of an archival collection, cultivate legible penmanship. It will endear you to generations of historians.

My painstaking journey through enthusiastically crossed "t"s and scribbled "if"s (or is that an "of"? an "off"? uff...) is a walk in the park compared to historians of the pre-typewriter era. I must contend with postscripts and alterations, but their entire manuscript collections may be written in archaic or simply unreadably sloppy script. A good friend of mine waded through the microfilm equivalent to reams of probate records from the late colonial era through the early years of the Republic. Ouch. Others must wander through foreign languages using extinct letter-forms and antiquated terminology.

Even in this digital age, we tend to associate the written word with permanence. "Get it in writing." "Sign a contract." "Dot the 'i's and cross the 't's." Historians' fascinating journeys through archival collections demonstrate the historicity even of the seemly permanent. What did this term mean? What does a looping script like this indicate? How one earth does one decipher this penmanship? Expression is an ever-changing process, and the means of expression are fodder for historical scholarship just as much as the thoughts and ideas the expression represents.

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