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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Dewey, Edison and ‘library hand’

In September 1885, a group of librarians — including Melvil Dewey, the decimal man — met to discuss how to expand their card catalogs quickly and legibly, writes Ella Morton on Atlas Obscura. They invented a penmanship style called “library hand.”

The typewriter had been invented, but “it took time and effort to teach the art of ‘machine writing’,” she writes. Librarians searched for a uniform writing style that resembled type.

“The trouble in handwriting is that there is apt to be too much flourishing,” said James Whitney, of the Boston Public Library.

Thomas Edison had been experimenting with penmanship styles in order to find the most speedy and legible type of handwriting for telegraph operators, said C. Alex Nelson, of the Astor Library in New York. Edison had selected “a slight back-hand, with regular round letters apart from each other, and not shaded.”

Dewey and a team “a dozen catalogers and librarians” hashed out the rules of library hand, writes Morton.

They concluded that the “simpler and fewer the lines the better,” and decided that, while a slant was best avoided, a slight backward slant was acceptable. Then they got to the more nitty-gritty stuff, such as whether to opt for a “square-topped 3” or a “rounded-top 3.” (The rounded-top 3 won out, as it is less likely to be mistaken for a 5 during hasty reading.)

I’m old enough to remember library card catalogs. Most of the cards were typed, as I recall.

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