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Idea: Early Handwriting Tutor Software

Thursday, 13 Sep 2007 | by Mark Tucker

At some point every genealogist/family historian will come across a handwritten document that will challenge their ability to read it.  An excellant resource for early American handwriting is Kip Sperry’s book, “Reading Early American Handwriting.” The study of early handwriting is called paleography or palaeography.

My idea is handwriting/paleography tutor software that will systematically teach users how to read early handwritten documents. 

Inspiration:

Typing software systematically teaches correct fingering and allows for repetitive practice.  It breaks these down into lessons and records both speed and accuracy. What if there were similar software that would help us read, transcribe, extract, or abstract handwritten documents?

The preface to Kip Sperry’s book states:

“One of the best ways to begin a study of paleography is to read facsimiles of documents and then transcribe them word for word, letter for letter.”

The software would include the following features:

  • Instruction on how to transcribe a document
  • Handwriting styles (secretary hand, Italic hand, etc.)
  • Different modules for different languages and time periods (Nineteenth Century American, Eighteenth Century American, Eighteenth Century British, etc.)
  • Start with transcribing single letters to get to know different alphabets and styles, then single words, then word phrases, then sentences/lines, and finally on to paragraphs.
  • Expansion of abbreviations and contractions (Alexr [Alexander], Chas[Charles])
  • Arabic and roman numerals
  • Dates (7ber [September])
  • Obsolete letter forms (long s, thorn, etc.)

I imagine this software running on my desktop.  It will track my progress through the different lessons and show me my accuracy, problem areas, and maybe speed.  I can go back to previous lessons.  It would also be interesting if I could run it as a tool tray application where it would periodically, pop up a little window that asks me for a short translation.  That way I can practise a little each day.

One possible user interface idea comes from the UK National Archives site:

handwriting1.jpg
An expanded idea on this could be a website where people contribute image fragments (that are not under copyright) as well as the translations.  These could be categorized by language, handwriting style (if known), time period, difficulty level and length.  The Handwriting Tutor software could then download these “online modules” for an almost inexhaustible source of practice material.

 This idea is open to anyone who wants to work on it.  Let me know when you are finished or if anyone comes across software that does this.  Maybe the software can be sold as a companion to Kip Sperry’s book.

Useful links:

1 Comment »

  1. Mark, I like your idea for a palaeography software tutoring program. As a high school literature teacher I am a real fan of style guides and master style sheets. As a family historian, I have also found a need for project style sheets in working with family documents.

    Presently, I am transcribing hundreds of letters from my mother’s family, most from the early 20th century. I have an ongoing style sheet to help me maintain consistency in my work; this constantly changes as new issues emerge, but I can’t imagine getting very far without it.

    Let me know if you know more on this topic. I would love to be involved in such a project.

    Comment by Denise Levenick — 10 Apr 2008 @ 12:03 pm

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