By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book Project
|Both this image and the one below come from Stevan J. Arnold's journal and field notes, April 1963-September 1965.|
I apologize to our readers because an important event occurred without comment on our blog. In addition to being the beginning of the Chinese New Year (Gung Hay Fat Choy!), last Monday was also National Penmanship Day. Where was I?
I was hiding in shame, for my handwriting has always suffered in favor of efficiency. The other girls in my school classes obsessed with achieving straight, perfectly formed letters. Me? “Well, I can read it.” In a CBS Sunday Morning story, one expert claimed that judgments about a child’s intelligence are often based on the quality of his or her handwriting which can affect grades. I can at least partially attest to the expert’s claim; teachers and classmates thought I was lazy, apathetic, and inattentive to detail (and I will neither confirm nor deny these accusations). My real motivation (or lack thereof when it came to neat handwriting) was that with all the important things to do writing cute letters seemed a superfluous concern.
Perhaps that is exactly what many of the collectors whose field notes I’ve cataloged think when they write their notes: with all of the important information to capture – localities, names, descriptions, temperatures – who has time to dot all the “i”s, cross all the “t”s, etc.? “So what if a few extra squiggles find their way into my writing,” they might argue, “as long as I can read it.” The question is can anyone else read it? I’ve even looked back at my own notes and struggled to make sense of them. As someone who reads field notes every working day of the year, I will tell you that reading messy handwriting becomes particularly tricky when trying to decipher the name of a location, for example, in a country you know little about. Thank goodness for the Google Search auto correct feature – “Did you mean: Limon, Costa Rica,” Google asks coyly when I search for what I thought was “Linon, Costa Rica”. I know someone else had problems reading the same collection because the archive’s finding aid reads “Cindad Bolivar, Venezuela” several times instead of the correct “Ciudad Bolivar”.
It was in this seemingly endless stream of the scratches and scribble that one man’s field notes appeared as a life raft pulling me towards the safe banks of legibility. This year’s Field Book Project National Penmanship Day Award goes to that man, Steven J. Arnold (Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 7311). Arnold worked with renowned Entomologist Paul D. Hurd, Jr., collecting and researching carpenter bees in Mexico and various Central American countries. Although not the only nicely written field notes in existence, Arnold’s notes are some of the neatest, most intelligible I’ve had the luck to catalog. The quality of Arnold’s handwriting made his notes faster to catalog and allowed me to be more detailed and accurate in my description of the content and list of geographic names. His penmanship isn’t about beauty; I’ve seen more beautiful, loopy script that is a work of art – but I couldn’t read it! It’s about longevity. Arnold didn’t allow his research to get lost within his own chicken scratch.
As we grow older, good penmanship does sort of become superfluous. We are judged more on our ideas, our actions, and end products than our penmanship. In this age of emails and born digital documents, handwritten documents are often kept to ourselves. For those collectors that still keep handwritten notes, however, consider taking a page out of Steven J. Arnold’s book and remember that few will learn from the words you’ve written if they can’t read what you wrote.