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.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Kitty Burns Florey, Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting (Brooklyn, New York: Melville House Publishing, 2009).

I remember receiving grades in grammar school for handwriting, and I also remember not caring much about my handwriting once the grading ceased. I also remember practicing my signature, looking for just the right affect (efforts seemingly completely wasted when my daughter years later remarked that my signature looks like I was having a stroke when I signed for something). Florey’s entertaining little book brings all this thoughts flooding back.

Florey, a novelist and experienced copyeditor, gives us a highly personal account of handwriting in her Script and Scribble, a book that is also nicely illustrated and designed. She reviews the history of handwriting (with a focus on tools and scripts), the development of penmanship styles (emphasizing the work and influence of Platt Rogers Spencer and A.N. Palmer), the idea of graphology (handwriting analysis and its purported value), and the challenges to writing in the digital era (with the rise of calligraphy and the uses of technology to mimic handwriting).

Script and Scribble is not a scholarly work, but it is full of interesting examples and offers insights about the nature of handwriting that will be of use to archivists. If nothing else, the book provides clues as to why individuals often still employ leather bound journals and fountain pens to record their thoughts when they are surrounded by digital technologies. “As a writer,” Florey notes, “I have to admit that I’m wedded to my computer. But as a reader, I find it difficult to describe the exact nature of the excitement I feel when I encounter a favorite writer’s signature – the real, immediate, spontaneous thing, done with a hand and a pen – or better yet, the original manuscript of some work I love” (p. 125). Florey views handwriting as a window into the mind of a writer: “Even more than a personal possession, a writer’s script, with its smears, crossings out, second thoughts, and marginal notes, seems to take the viewer directly into his or her mind” (p. 128). And she adds this kind of archival advice, given the rarity of handwritten letters, “My own advice is: if you get a letter in the mail, save it! Posterity will thank you” (p. 129). While that may be a bit of a stretch, it does capture the value Florey assigns to handwriting.