Being a genealogist means using primary sources as much as possible, and the majority of those sources are handwritten on paper. Two challenges exist with these handwritten records:
1. Writing styles were manuscript (cursive) with neatness, spelling and abbreviations differing by writer; and
2. Researchers almost universally view an image of the document, not the original document itself.
Often the original record was in a ledger book with pages 18 inches by 24 inches in size. We are now looking at images of those records shrunk down to 9 inches by 12 inches at most. Additionally most records are on microfilm which has huge variability in quality and is only in black and white, not even shades of gray. To view the microfilm we use decades-old microfilm readers, or if we are fortunate, newer ScanPro machines attached to computer monitors and capable of converting the microfilm image to PDF files. Some original records are now being digitized in full-color and are viewable on computer monitors making the deciphering of them much easier.
The learning curve for you may be minimal or steep depending on how well you can read current day manuscript writing. “Writing in cursive”, as we call it now, has fallen out of favor over the past couple of decades. The good news is you can learn how to read it, given time and practice.
Here’s the resources I recommend starting with the basics, then how to practice, and finally getting masterful:
- Basic Overview: The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 4th ed., by Val Greenwood – Chapter 2 covers handwriting, abbreviations, Latin terms, evolution of indicating relationship, titles, naming practices, and the calendar change in 1752.
- Solid Practice: Reading Early American Handwriting, by Kip Sperry – The first part of the book covers different writing styles by time period and location. The second part is nearly 100 original document images with the accompanying word-for-word transcription. It’s an excellent way to teach yourself how to “translate” from a previous century’s handwriting to modern typography.
- Deep Dive: The formal study of handwriting is called paleography, and Brigham Young University has a free online self-paced course in European scripts used between 1500-1800. Access the course through the BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy here.