Will our grandchildren be able to read our letters?

During a visit to my local archive last week, I noticed a guide tacked beside the computer — the machine that  is used for access to the Ontario Vital Statistics.    cursif2Shelley (the archivist) explained that clients are unable to read the original records which are presented as “pdf” files or “jpg’s”.  The original records are in cursive script, or what we always called long-hand

I am constantly annoyed with folks who claim that all the recent indexing has made those hand-written  originals obsolete.  The index to the Vital Stats is (in a word) horrible.  In a rush to finish, the sponsor accepted any moron to do the transcription.  The index is riddled with mistakes, many of which were completely avoidable.  For instance, I have seen the phrase “Canada West”, which appears in the index frequently, transcribed as “Cweste”  and “Canwe”.   Surnames are often horribly mangled.  

It seems that researchers are beginning to agree with me, and are coming to the archives to gain access to the pictures of the originals. 

An over-whelming number of this archives’ clients are over fifty years of age, so I was astonished to learn that they are mostly unable to read anything written in pen and ink.  What’s with that?  We are all pre-keyboard and set down anything and everything by hand right through high school.

However, it does explain why the indices to the Vital Stats, and to Canada Census for that matter, are so dratted awful.

If  older folks who learned penmanship can no longer read the writings from our recent past, how are our children and grandchildren going to cope?  The Kingston Whig-Standard (Wed. March 18, 2009) recently contained two articles: “Saving the lost art of handwriting,” and another, “Parents concerned…”  which questions whether keyboarding is preventing children from learning to write with a pen or pencil.  As our local Whiggy (alas) is no longer independent, but syndicated, you may have seen the same articles in your own local paper.

What a shame.  For the sake of a few weeks of training in primary school, our descendants will be denied the pleasure of reading an actual letter in Lord Byron’s hand not to mention great-grandma’s account of the Halifax explosion or the rich details of the 19th century data just as the clerk set them down. 

Presumably, everyone will be basing their understanding on a transcription made by someone else, a transcription which might be good, fair or downright misleading.   How very sad.

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1 Comment

Filed under Archives, History, Ontario, Material culture

One response to “Will our grandchildren be able to read our letters?

  1. “How sad” were my thoughts too as I read your post. I’m amazed that adults wouldn’t be able to read handwriting. Though I chuckled as I wrote that since my own handwriting has become almost illegible – I try to stick to printing but that’s deteriorating too. As a former archivist I often lament the loss of handwritten letters, etc but it hadn’t occurred to me that we’re losing the ability to decipher them. Yeegads!

    I’ve been thinking lately that as human beings we seem to collectively lose abilities – mutate almost – very quickly. I had been thinking of it in terms of kids today – they seem to be so different than the kids I grew up with in certain respects now that they have almost no independent, unsupervised activities and little unstructured play.

    In an age where so many think that everything can be accessed online you raise some really good points about the difficulties and shortcomings of online research.

    Liz

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