Library Research Skills Tutorial About the tutorial
Using Resources

Understanding manuscripts & archives

Reading documents: handwriting and palaeography

The ability to decipher a document's handwriting is crucial for gaining unmediated access to the contents of the material. Writing materials and instruments often also provide important clues regarding the time period and the origin of the document.

If you need to consult documents dating from the late Antiquity until the development of ‘modern’ writing around the time when printing was also firmly established in the 16th century, you will benefit from some knowledge of palaeography. What is palaeography? is a useful starting point.

Depending on the scope of your research, in addition to reading a document you may also want to transcribe it. In order to preserve its integrity and authenticity you should be careful to reproduce the text of the original document as exactly as possible, with no omissions, additions, or corrections.

Training

To acquire some palaeographical skills, you may consider taking a short class on the subject. London is the main centre for teaching manuscript studies and palaeography in the UK, and information on available courses can be found on the website of the Centre for Manuscript and Print Studies at the University of London.

Online tutorials can also help you acquire at least a basic level of document reading skills through self-study. A few useful links are listed below:

If you need to consult later material written in less formal hands, you should expect to analyse more than one document created by the same author in order to become familiar with a particular handwriting style. Some examples of handwriting and typesets from the 18th to the 20th century and some tips on deciphering difficult handwriting are included in this tutorial from the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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