Library Hand: An Unexpected 21st Century Skill

Library hand may sound like something a doctor treats you for after you’ve written too many catalogue cards, but it was actually a handwriting style designed to make the cards more legible. Brought to you by the creators of the Dewey Decimal System, library hand was once an integral part of all library school curricula but, after the catalogue was no longer on real cards, library hand was quietly dropped. There are good reasons, however, for taking up this classic bit of librarian fit and finish even in the 21st century world (assuming you aren’t replaced by an Amazon kiosk).

Contrary to the criminally negligent assumptions of many American elementary school teachers, we all write by hand every day—we leave notes for patrons or colleagues, address envelopes, label materials, take notes at meetings, fill out stats sheets… We do so much handwriting (and do so many studies showing its benefits for memory and cognitive processing) that we now pay premiums for devices that support it. To the chagrin of futurists everywhere, handwriting remains an essential element of the ALA’s Core Competency 1J (“Effective communication techniques verbal and written”), even in 2019.

For all the importance that it retains, however, we don’t study handwriting like we used to. Not only is library hand gone from our iSchools, but even simple cursive is rapidly disappearing from our schools in general. Lamentations by pedants (like me) are a dime a dozen, but one need only Google the phrase “embarrassed by handwriting” to see how this omission has genuinely hurt hundreds of thousands of people in the US alone (and we don’t even suffer from “character amnesia“—the phenomenon of young people in China and Japan forgetting how to write ordinary characters that their phones regularly autocomplete). And when I say “hurt”, I mean it; the Indian Institute of Medicine estimates that approximately 7,000 people are killed every year by medical errors arising from sloppy handwriting.

Melvil Dui may have been a terrible speller (and a dubious person in other respects as well), but every one of his questionable ideas was clearly legible thanks to a system he designed based on Thomas Edison’s studies of telegraphers’ handwriting. Similar to the printed handwriting familiar from many schools today, library hand takes very little time to learn and, after some practice, can produce clear, consistent text at considerable speed. That’s important if you are a practicing librarian; it is even more so if you are still trying to become one.

Graphology may seem like palm-reading, but it is becoming bigger business as applicant pools get more crowded. The Guardian, the New York Times, and Business Insider have all run stories on employers using handwriting analysis as a cost-effective alternative to more traditional psychometrics. Less formal assessments are also being used for first-pass weeding of overly tall résumé stacks. These practices are more advanced internationally (75% of French companies, for example, assess handwriting in making hiring decisions), but even in something as small as a handwritten line at the bottom of your interview thank you letter, library hand can tell a story of efficiency, regularity, reliability, and attention to detail. To the right library director or hiring committee, of course, it says something also about a deep knowledge of, and commitment to, our profession and its history.

That history, of course, goes back well before Dui. Given that the clerical tasks of library clerks descended from the work of medieval clerics, it shouldn’t surprise us that handwriting activates the same neurons as meditation, and has been shown in by the National Institutes of Health to have comparable physiological effects. Admiral McRaven’s book Make Your Bed has been popular at my library in recent weeks, and its first point is the power of doing small things with great discipline. The attention to detail and the care involved in writing clean library hand aren’t just a skill, they are a habit, and that is the truth behind all the corporate buzz of handwriting analysis. Every medieval scribe whose work paved the way for modern librarianship knew just what the words of Luke 16:10 meant as he placed the delicate serifs on their letters: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much…”

For all the talk of its demise, library hand thus remains a valuable secret weapon of librarianship for improving your workplace communication, projecting a professional image, and developing the habits of mindfulness on which our work so strongly depends.

Read more about the history and aims of library hand.

Study some examples and get started using it.

Categories: History, Professional Life, tools

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