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View of Georgetown campus from the Virginia side of the Potomac

View of Georgetown campus from the Virginia side of the Potomac

Archival Research Guide

Guide to conducting research in archives and special collections.

Document Analysis Worksheet

When analyzing a primary source, the following guidelines can help to develop an understanding of content, creator, context, and significance.


Manuscript vs Print

Paleography and Reading Hand-written Documents

What is Paleography? -- The study of ancient writing systems and the deciphering and dating of historical manuscripts (Oxford English Dictionary).

What is Graphology? -- The study of handwriting, for example, to infer a person's character (Oxford English Dictionary).

Some Things to Consider -- 

  • Handwriting became more personalized in the nineteenth century as more of the population (especially in England and America) became literate. Previously, handwriting or penmanship was standardized to a limited number of recognized styles practiced by official transcribers of primarily legal and government documents. (See the links below for more on early handwriting forms.)
  • Modern handwriting (from the late twentieth century) is idiosyncratic, rarely following consistent form, and therefore requires a level of familiarity from the reader that can only develop through practice. 
  • Generally, an individual's handwriting style is unique and recognizable, even given tendencies in some  for inconsistencies in letter formation. In the days of "snail mail" for example, frequent handwritten letters from a personal friend could be read easily by the receiver well familiar with that friend's handwriting; but might be less decipherable by someone else. Consider the case of Lady Dedlock's recognition of Captain James Hawdon's handwriting to be one and the same as her former lover and father of her illegitimate daughter Esther Summerson.

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