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Hand-written Manuscripts: Learn to Read Guide

A guide to resources on how to read hand-written archival documents and manuscripts.

Try reading a sample manuscript


Letter by Susan Decatur, dated 21 February, 1828

(from Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection GTM130701, Box 4, Folder 9, Booth Family Center for Special Collections) 



1. Practice reading the autograph manuscripts first. Then check for accuracy against the transcription below --

Geo Town, February 21st 1828

My Dear General

The mail travels so leisurely between Washington and George Town that your letter of yesterday enclosing a check for a hundred and eighty dollars, did not reach here until to day at 2 o’clock; and I hasten to acknowledge the receipt of it.

I shall be happy to supply Messrs van Buren & co with Hermitage if they happen to like it; and also a little of the Macedonian Madeira as a sort of counterpoise to prevent them from forming any overweening partiality for the French!

It is really a vexatious thing when the Nation owes me at least a hundred thousand dollars, that I shou’d be obliged to sell my goods and chattels; and thus deprive myself of the pleasure of seeing my friends enjoy the wine which was collected with so much care for that express purpose!

I beg you to believe me My dear General, very sincerely yours,

S. Decatur

[Postscript address]

The Honble.

Stephen van Rensselaer

2. Points of Interest (i.e., related subjects and extended research]

  • What was the Macedonian?
  • What are Hermitage and Madeira?
  • What’s the connection between Susan, the Macedonian, Hermitage and Madeira? 
  • What’s the story behind the letter? Can you craft a narrative?
  • Why is Susan vexed?
  • Why does “the Nation” owe her money?
  • Why is she selling off her “goods and chattels”?
  • In what ways does information about the preceding add to your knowledge of and insight to the times (historically and culturally)? Example: insight into 19th century postal service; sea trading; widows' legal rights.


Compare hand-written original versus other formats

Format Comparison Exercise


This questionnaire can be applied  to any original creative work in manuscript form (poem or narrative). The worksheet may be applied to other artistic and creative works to begin an assessment of  the creator’s artistry or craft.


Look at the text

  • Try to read it.

  • Is there a digital image of the manuscript?

  • Compare the digital image with the original.

  • Is there a published version?

  • Compare the manuscript with the published version. What changes/corrections do you notice between the versions?


What can you learn from looking at the original manuscript that would not be evident by having access only to the digital version or published text? Consider the following --

  • Humanizing effect of seeing the creator’s corrections

  • Witnessing the effort of the creative process – hence the term “work of art”

  • Appreciation of the time to physically write and to read the poem.


Why do you think the creator made changes to the work?

  • Do you know anything about the publisher or the circumstances of the work’s publication – either or both of which might have influenced changes to the original manuscript? (Ask a reference librarian to help with locating secondary sources that may be available about the publisher and publication of the work.)

  • Do you think the changes improve the meaning, quality and impact of the work?

  • Do you think the published version remains true to what you know and understand of the creator and/or the creator’s other works?

  • Can you detect a creative process by comparing the manuscript with the published version?


What questions come to mind about the creator and the work that might not have occurred to you by just reading about the creator and seeing only the published version of the work? Do you feel more connected to the creator after seeing the original manuscript of the work? Why?

Visual literacy & why you should know

Visual Literacy Exercise


It’s important to recognize the value of visual artifacts such as photographs and graphic images. Visual literacy is the foundation of learning — children learn from pictures before they can read text. Images can provide a more immediate connection because they tend to elicit a more emotional response than reading a textual item. Many people already mentally transcribe textual reading into images in order to facilitate their understanding of information conveyed in words. Examining visual artifacts may reveal aspects not apparent from just reading text, making the development of perceptive and observational skills a valuable part of research. In life, visual literacy -- the ability to communicate through images and to make sense of them -- helps us to better read an increasingly multi-media world, especially when combined with other sensory literacies, as well as textual and digital literacies.


Try the following visual literacy exercise on photographs and other images. Can you figure out something about the “who, what, when, where, and why”? 


Step 1. Pick an image. 

  • Look at it for a few minutes. Avoid reading any caption or accompanying text. 
  • Capture your first impression in a few words about what the image shows.
  • Note everything you see in the image. 


Step 2. Determine the purpose of the image.

  • Read any existing information that accompanies the image.
  • Who made the picture?
  • Who was the audience?
  • When was image created? 
  • Why was the image created?


Step 3. Interpret and Communicate

  • Verify and support your interpretation of the original in reference sources (including the originating collection.)
  • Share the picture with a colleague. 
  • Compare perceptions. See anything new?
  • Do you agree with each other’s interpretation? 
  • If you were to provide only a written description of the image, what would your colleague miss?

(Adapted from Visual Literacy Exercise by Helena Zinkham, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, June 2004).

Further Reading

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