Last week, Gary's cousin, David, and I spent five days hunched over my twin computer monitors. His rapid-fire English, punctuated with a Czech accent, forced me to focus intently and type quickly. As he read the 17th century German Gothic script on the left screen, I entered data into a spreadsheet on the right one: name, birth date, parents. Page after page, hour after hour. Over 1,000 names later, we had reached the end of the line: my husband's seventh great-grandmother, Dorota Bublova (daughter of Jiri Bubla and Zuzana) born July 10, 1657 in Helvikovice. Her record was on page 2 of the oldest register of births kept in the Zamrsk (Czech Republic) Archives.
Thanks to the incredible record-keeping of the Catholic Church, we traced one of Gary's pedigree lines back 355 years. Thanks to David, we were able to find and extract the information. Thanks to his grandmother, David learned to read the old script. What if he had never been taught?
There is a frightening movement underway to eliminate cursive handwriting from public schools; for example, see Cursive Handwriting Getting Erased. I label this "frightening" because the long-term implications for family historians is almost unthinkable. If today's elementary student is not taught cursive, who will read the countless documents that are being preserved for the next generation? Will your descendants be able to read grandpa's World War II letters to grandma? Or your mother's diaries? Or your journals?
Genealogists who have "crossed the pond" must learn to work in (or work around) the language of their ancestors' homelands. My personal family research has me delving into records of old Greek script, which I find almost impossible to read. Although I ache for more records, I lament my inability to read them. In essence, the information they hold is lost to me. Sadly, I don't have a David.
As a volunteer Citizen Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC, I assist in preparing Civil War Widow's Pension files for digitization. I must read every piece of paper in every file that I handle -- letters, forms and notes that were written in the mid-1800's. Often, team members collaborate to decipher a name, a word or a phrase. Although we were not taught the old Copperplate and Spencerian script of these documents, we did learn 20th century Palmer handwriting. Knowing one form enables us to read another. This Project may take 50 years to complete. A genealogy treasure-trove, it is well worth every effort to finish. Who, in the next generation, will be able to read the records?
As my family's historian, this matter is of significant concern and weighs heavily on me. I want our family legacy to be available to my descendants. I don't want them to lose the opportunity to make personal and emotional connections with their ancestors. These priceless ties come from reading an old letter or inscription on the back of an aging photo, or seeing a signature on a page and recognizing it as that of a great-grandfather.
I've just added "transcribe documents of most worth" to my genealogy project list. Our records are part of our personal and collective identity. I don't want our family's to be lost.
Carol Kostakos Petranek is one of the Directors of the Washington DC Family History Center and a Volunteer at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.