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Library Hand, the Fastidiously Neat Penmanship Style Made for Card Catalogs

In the 1880s, libraries were growing fast. Each new book acquired needed an entry in the card catalog. While librarians are liable to be educated and use good penmanship, the cards were still hard to read because the nice script had "too much flourishing.” A library summit meeting was held in Late George, New York in September 1885. One of the attendees was Melvil Dewey, who had developed the Dewey Decimal System. The problem of catalog cards was discussed, and a highly legible new style of writing was proposed. It was eventually called "library hand."

Influenced by Edison and honed via experimenting on patient, hand-sore librarians, library hand focused on uniformity rather than beauty. ”The handwriting of the old-fashioned writing master is quite as illegible as that of the most illiterate boor,” read a New York State Library School handbook. “Take great pains to have all writing uniform in size, blackness of lines, slant, spacing and forms of letters,” wrote Dewey in 1887. And if librarians thought they could get away with just any black ink, they could think again real fast. ”Inks called black vary much in color,” scoffed the New York State Library School handwriting guide.

Dewey and his crew of “a dozen catalogers and librarians” spent, in his estimation, “an hour daily for nearly an entire week” hashing out the rules of library hand. They started by examining hundreds of card catalogs, looking for penmanship problems and coming up with ways to solve them. 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.)

You might argue that it would have been easier for librarians to learn to type. Read about the history and usage of library hand at Atlas Obscura. 

(Image credit: Ella Morton)


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