I had to smile when I read our news story about digitising our collections and the task of transcribing 'sometimes illegible' handwritten specimen labels. I smiled because bad handwriting was something the Museum actively sought to avoid in the pre-digital era. So much so that scientists were required to prove the quality of their penmanship when applying for a job here.
Clare Valentine, Head of Life Sciences Collections, says:
'We requested handwritten covering letters for curatorial posts until the late '90s for Zoology curators. Curators were also trained to "refine" their handwriting to produce legible labels for the collection to last in perpetuity and be completely understandable.'
Theresa Howard, Head of Entomological Collections, concurs:
'All applications used to have to be handwritten, not typed. We didn't get our first computers until the early '80s. However, even once computer generated documentation became the norm, the Entomology Department used to insist that all curatorial applicants hand write 10-20 specimen labels as part of their interview.'
Zoe Jay Adams, a Research Assistant in the Life Sciences Department, took the specimen label writing test when she was interviewed in 1993, and recalls:
'I was alarmed, because I don't have the neatest of handwriting.'
While contemporary specimen labels are written in a small but clear and tidy hand, old labels in our historic collections often feature the copperplate script preferred by Victorians, which can sometimes be difficult to read.
Gordon Paterson, Museum zoologist and head of the iCollections project, says: 'Difficult is not nearly a suitable term for some of these labels!' (left). 'But on the brighter side there are examples of good, clear writing.' (right).
Lawrence Brooks, a database expert in the Zoology Department who is working on digitising the historic Mollusca collection, says that deciphering labels is 'equal parts luck and hard work'.
'Context is your friend. It helps narrow the field from “this could say absolutely anything at all” to “this is a species of mouse”, giving you somewhere to begin your search. Sometimes though, you’ll always be on a hiding to nothing. Like trying, for instance, to decipher the spelling of a colloquial place name for an oasis somewhere in northern Africa that has never been formally recorded. '