Loops and curves

Here on the web team, Rachel Adams (Database Services Volunteer Coordinator at NEHGS) is always working to recruit new volunteers for our major projects.  As she tries to think creatively about where to find new volunteers, she often hears apocalyptic pronouncements about how young people don’t know how to read cursive any more. Recently, we had the opportunity to teach students about our Catholic records project, giving them the opportunity to dive into deciphering the loops and curves of old-fashioned handwriting for themselves.

Rachel and I went to Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury to talk to students about our partnership with the Archdiocese of Boston to digitize their sacramental records. This opportunity was created by Vin Bradley, the A.P. U.S. History teacher at Catholic Memorial. We visited five different history classes throughout the day, including 11th grade A.P. U.S. History, 8th grade (History of Boston), and 11th grade U.S. History.

Rachel and I started each class with a short presentation. I talked about the project in general – the scope (about 900 pre-1900 volumes), our goals (two databases, one browsable and free, one searchable for NEHGS members), and our progress towards those goals (500 of the 900 volumes for the browsable collection, and 200 of the 900 for our searchable collection). I also tried to give a larger context – what is NEHGS? Why is it important that we digitize these items?

Rachel spoke about the process of digitization – how something goes from a book or a manuscript to becoming part of our online database. She explained exactly how the students would be helping us.  Each group of two or three students was assigned a page with about seven baptismal records. Rachel explained where to find the various important bits of information on the page, like the date, the name, the parents’ names, and the witnesses’ names. She gave the students tips for reading the messy handwriting, such as comparing a problem letter to other letters on the page. After our presentation, the students had the rest of the class to start working, as we roamed the classroom offering advice.

I asked Mr. Bradley why this event was important to his classes. He responded: “Students were able to fully immerse themselves in sacramental records of an Irish Catholic parish in antebellum Boston. These records provide a valuable insight into Catholic immigrant communities. Most importantly, this NEGHS digital history project allowed our students to be the historian. Your staff was patient and helpful.  Students did the hard work of interpreting nineteenth-century handwriting, and their labor will provide a valuable service for families researching their history and historians focused on Catholic history in Boston.”

By the end of the day, we’d engaged about 90 students in learning about this project. I was really excited about the opportunity to allow them to work directly with original documents. I heard one student tease another, saying “Hey look, it’s your grandma!” I assume the child being baptized had the same last name as this student (since we were working with records from 1845, I don’t think she was really his grandma!). It was fun to encourage the students to think about the lives of these people in 1845 who might not be so different from them.

About Molly Rogers

Molly is from York, PA. She studied English and French at Colby College in Maine and has a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Simmons College. She enjoys many outdoor pursuits such as whitewater kayaking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing and has a few indoor hobbies like reading, knitting and creating a genealogy website for her grandmother’s family.

16 thoughts on “Loops and curves

  1. Interesting that you have had this experience with high schoolers. I’m in the process of enlisting some high school students to help bring online a website dedicated to history and to family research (I feel the two go hand in hand). The site will provide a fairly extensive online library of historical documents as well as an online member-only blog for discussions.

  2. What a great idea! What a great service to future generations who only print or speak into dictation devices! I love your story and the project.

  3. Is it safe to assume those students could read cursive writing? Recently we attended a birthday of a young cousin at which we gave her a birthday card. She looked at the card, but made the comment “I can’t read this” and quickly handed it to her mother.

    1. I’m honestly not sure how much previous exposure the students have to cursive, but the class was very hands-on, so we had the opportunity to answer individual questions about what a certain word or letter might be.

    2. I continue to write cursive in letters and card evens though I know they can’t read it. Too bad…learn just like older generations learn your computer.

      True: College Department had an opportunity to hire person to help in department, historical/geneaology assignments. Senior in college was thrilled to be hired. It wasn’t long and department head returned the student. I can’t use her, she can’t read cursive.

      I talked (telephone) with employee at courhouse for information in one column of information. She read the one entry to me. Just dm’t make sense, so said I would pay for the item to be sent to me. When arrived, I read the one letter in the column and it made sense. The employee either couldn’t read cursive or the how the alphabet was written in that year.

      Hate to think of how some people will decide whtat the cursive reads and type it als being correct. .

    3. It is common practice for parochial/catholic schools to still teach penmanship in 2nd grade. Those children probably did their fair share of cursive handwriting at a young age. However, admittedly reading the curly q’s from parish records from the 19th and 20th century can still prove difficult as it is much more like a work of art than just penmanship of today. I wished many of our public schools still taught this skill, as it is sadly becoming an endangered art form!

  4. Did this experience give those students an opportunity to see the importance of learning cursive handwriting for reading documents and for writing their own? My own bias favors cursive, but I’m sure there are various opinions about it.

    1. Well done! Going to Catholic Memorial is a great idea. There are also many other schools in the Boston area whose students will understand the elements of the sacraments. They will have to be taught to be comfortable with cursive writing using the clues you gave about using other writing to decipher names.

    2. I definitely hope the students got a taste of the skills one needs to study historical documents, including reading cursive and dealing with when the record keeper made mistakes (you often find children baptized before they were born!)

  5. The lesson I got from this story was not that kids can’t read cursive, but that too many adults have jumped to the conclusion that they can’t, simply because their experience was different. What I’ve observed is that high school kids today develop their own style of writing as they go- basically the same way we did (I am 76). When we were finally released from the forced styles of standardized script, we rapidly developed our own styles. Kids today do the same, only with a different starting point. I see them fascinated by the various styles of cursive writing and comparing and experimenting with them. They are inquisitive and curious, and I think this makes them ideal candidates for transcription, not having been indoctrinated in the idea that there is only one way to write! To trot out one or two examples to the contrary is not proof otherwise, and I think demeans young people as a whole. Those who do so have forgotten the kids in our own classes who struggled with cursive as it was taught. They might have been better off left alone, or encouraged to experiment with print until they found what worked best for them. (Many of those kids from my class went on to become very successful in life. One of them is a professional archivist; another became a well-known journalist!)

  6. I find deciphering old documents to be a needed service and wonder if there are such professionals who provide this service in general. I have tried to read a single, though important word my father wrote regarding our family history. Your article gives me hope that I may be able to find someone to decipher this word. How can I locate such a person?

    1. Ray, I would be up for the challenge if you could email me not just a picture of the word, but the whole passage? Context matters very much when deciphering old family records! I am no professional anything, but I have traced my dad’s family all the way back to pre-Mayflower England and my mom’s line from pre-revolutionary France, to Quebec, Canada, to the US. I love genealogy and I try to help others whenever I can! Perhaps NEHGS could share my email with you, when they moderate this comment, as it gives my permission to do so. Best of luck!

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