Redwood History: Sarah Bliss & Library Hand

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 11:06am -- mfarias

We have written in the past about the legacy of Sarah Bliss and her work cataloguing for the Redwood Library, but a recent addition to the Kaminski Handwriting Collection, a project by David Kaminski found at, connects her to a larger tradition of handwriting in libraries.

Card Catalogue at the Redwood Library with handwritten cards by Sarah Bliss

For any who have not read of Sarah Bliss prior to this, she was born Sarah Peter Bowker in Boston, Massachusetts in 1839. She worked at the Boston Athenaeum from 1872-1875 and 1879-1888. In 1888, she married Richard Bliss, Librarian of the Redwood Library, and she came to work as a cataloger at the Library. Sarah Bliss handwrote hundreds of bibliographic cards and filed them in our card catalogues, which are still available at the Library today. Her distinctive handwriting marks the cards as originals of her hand and reminds us of the work she did for the Redwood. Bliss passed away in 1916 in Jamestown and is buried in Cambridge.


Handwritten cards by Sarah Bliss. The left is an older example while the right is a later one.

Kaminski devoted a page of his project to “Sarah Bliss: A Study of Handwriting in Libraries.” Her handwriting, both in an older card and a later one, is described as “aesthetically pleasing, rounded and easy to read, and mostly leftward slanting or backhanded. It is noticeably the writing of another era.” In this period, there were many books on writing common in Boston schools that she would have likely come across, along with writing styles that were considered especially suited for “ladies,” but Kaminski believes that her handwriting does not seem to be directly influenced by examples of either of these styles.


Secretary of S.H. Grant, letter to James Carson Brevoort, 1877 (example of handwriting)

Bliss’ own handwriting style is concluded to be a combination of “late 19th century American backhand with elements of library hand and idiosyncratic letters intermixed and varied.” Kaminski demonstrates the presence of backhand in everyday life and in offices through letters from 1866, 1876, and 1877, which are similar in style to her earlier written work. He has a separate page on his site devoted to the History of American Backhand, which explores the history of the broad range of styles that this label includes and can be found here.

Most interestingly, Bliss’ later work is influenced by what has been called “library hand,” a term that was first discussed theoretically in 1885 by the American Library Association. The first approved styles were printed by Melvil Dewey in March 1887, but they encountered major and minor changes for decades by Dewey and others working in libraries. While Bliss was not heavily influenced by Dewey, notably because she worked under Charles Cutter and classified under his system instead of Dewey’s, her later work does show traces of the library hand that was developed by the ALA. Although her style may not be an exact example of library hand as it was originally conceived, it is representative of the way that the style was frequently changed and influenced by outside styles and contributors, making her style that uses elements of library hand in conjunction with backhand a true representation of library hand in practice, rather than just in theory. Sarah Bliss' cards can be studied today not just for her influence on the Redwood Library, but for her role in a legacy of 19th century handwriting in American libraries that reveals much about the practices present in such organizations and their influences.