Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Second Hand Discoveries

If you frequent flea markets, antique shops, and secondhand bookshops, you have a good chance to find interesting books, photographs, ephemera, and artifacts relating to the production and maintenance of documentary materials. From time to time, you come across stuff reminding you of your own youth, another reminder of how old you are becoming.

A recent trip to a used bookshop rewarded me with a copy of Frank N. Freeman, The Teaching of Handwriting (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1914), a volume reminding me of my grade school days when I received a grade for my handwriting (not only was this the easiest grade to earn, but the day they stopped giving grades for this my handwriting lapsed into the chicken scratch it is today). However, there is still some emphasis on the teaching of handwriting as the more recent example of a manual on this subject pictured here reveals.

Freeman’s little book, in nice condition and picked up for $10, was designed to be an aid to teachers instructing students in handwriting. The book covers the physical aspects of writing, lays out a practice regimen, and provides what was then thought to be the aims and standards for handwriting instruction. I bought the book because I recognized it as a good teaching prop, one I could use in the classroom to help students growing up in the world of the personal computer and the Internet to understand a bit about a world where people wrote in longhand.

The Teaching of Handwriting also links such old approaches to the new computer and other self-help manuals of today. Freeman starts his book with this statement: “Learning to write consists primarily in the requirement of a new form of expression.” He describes how a student might be able “to form the letters fluently and legibly” but still be handicapped by how they approach writing. What Freeman describes is not that different from what one might discover in a software manual today, where the emphasis is on learning a new application so that it becomes second nature: “Writing has not been thoroughly learned until the child can give his attention chiefly to the train of thought he is engaged in expressing while the mechanics of the production of the letters are relegated to the realm of habit” (p. 1).

Moreover, think of the many essays and books written about the negative influences, especially on personal health, of information technology. Freeman’s little track includes similar warnings, such as his ruminations about the physiology and hygiene of writing, including the problem with writer’s cramp, a “disease of the nervous system which affects writing by producing either the abnormal contraction or the paralysis of some of the muscles used in writing” (p. 53).

The Teaching of Handwriting is a reminder of the raw materials sitting around us for new and interesting research to be done about the history of the production of documents. Some scholars are discovering these possibilities, and for those of us who teach, the potential is great for bringing some case studies right into the classroom that can open up our young students to comprehend that what may seem to be new to them is in actuality concerns that have been around for a very long time.