Part 1: A Library of the Unreadable?

This post is contributed by Heidi Madden, Librarian for Western European and Medieval/Renaissance Studies. 

Documents in German Script (cursive handwriting) and books and pamphlets  printed in Blackletter typeface (Fraktur) represent the lives of many diverse German-language communities from the 15th to the 20th century. However, as many scholars can attest, these Scripts are notoriously difficult to read. So how can libraries and librarians help students and researchers learn paleography?

Rubenstein Library (RL) has a very active instruction  program and  I frequently collaborate with Rubenstein librarian Elizabeth Dunn on teaching with materials in old handwriting, both in English and German. We work with faculty to  “literally”  help students read the Script and Blackletter.  In fact, Elizabeth began building  a small library of transcriptions that she sets up alongside the original documents. Students are always fascinated by the idea of immersing themselves in these unique materials, especially pieces of correspondence recounting private lives, which make the past come alive.

While brainstorming ideas about possible materials for a recent RL session, Elizabeth and I  decided that making the  Oskar Morgenstern papers more approachable could be a wonderful pedagogical project. Oskar Morgenstern was a German-born economist, university professor, and author in Austria and the United States. Together with John von Neumann, he founded the mathematical field of game theory and its application to the field of economics. The Rubenstein collection includes Morgenstern’s handwritten diaries, spanning the years 1917-1977. The diaries were digitized,  a few years ago, in a collaboration between Rubenstein Library  and  the University of Graz, Austria, and can be seen at the Oskar Morgenstern Website.

German Script and Blackletter are notoriously resistant to machine reading, i.e. scanning with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software.  This means that all  of the Morgenstern documents have had to be transcribed manually, word by word and letter by letter. A team of researchers at University of Graz has already transcribed entries from the late 1930s to 1976; they have also built an index of Morgenstern’s  network of collaborators. However, the published results of their labor have appeared only in German.  Nevertheless, this combination of unique , local, manuscript holdings and an active, freely accessible,  digital project presented an ideal opportunity for creating a meaningful and memorable Rubenstein Library session.

Assuming that college students would  relate particularly well to documents from the author’s early years,  I decided to transcribe the inscription on the cover sheet and the very first page of the diary, dated March 14, 1917, and  written when Oskar Morgenstern was just 15 years old. Here is an image of the inside cover page of Oskar’s diary:

Image Label: Oskar Morgenstern Diary entry from March 14, 1917.

After transcribing the diary entry, I translated it as follows:

March 14, 1917 

“So, you shall be my diary, you shall hear all that is important to me and be a trustworthy keeper! On Monday the 12th my father brought home Gloy: Train your Memory. And I am very grateful to him. It is excellent, and I need to work through it. Tomorrow we have a Latin test. Schmitzi thinks it will be “child’s play,” but he says that about everything that he can translate. I have no confidence when it comes to this, and I just need to study so much harder, because I must get a C (3= Genügend).  The German Emperor is right when he calls exams in Latin inane nonsense. Yesterday we were in the chemistry laboratory because the academic High School building saw a case of Scarlet fever, and the classrooms had to be disinfected. Today we were once again in the usual classroom.The idea of auto suggestion from Gloy is excellent. I must adhere to all instructions. I convinced myself that I would succeed in the Latin exam. Will that be of any use?

 Thank God that the cursed exam is over. Of course Feldman is right again. I maintain that it is “patiaris” and he says “passiusis”. Wechs says I am right. But he won’t concede the point, stupid games. Tomorrow we will probably get back the math exam. How will it turn out? Let’s hope for the best. In Petersburg a revolution broke out, hopefully the French will imitate this, and hang all the crooked ones!!
I am going to train my left hand. I have to be able to write as well with the left as with the right hand, that will double the power of my brain. Why should I ignore that possibility, and not use it to my advantage? Enough for today, especially since I have nothing else to report, and I want to go to bed. I will wake up at 6 am. Auto suggestion.”

This is just the first entry in a diary spanning 50 years. Yet even this single entry shows how many questions one might pursue when working with students in a session on the use of primary (archival) sources. Putting aside young Oskar’s laudatory reference to the Russian Revolution of 1917, it may be best to focus on something smaller and closer to home.  For example, the reference to training your memory is to Hans Gloy, Gedächtnis-Ausbildung, 1913. Gloy (born in 1888) was a German merchant, who also wrote advice pieces for trade journals.  The table of contents of the Gloy volume shows that the book is a training manual, organized into daily exercises, spaced over the course of seven weeks.  The training, however, is not physical, but intellectual.  Indeed, Gloy’s manual is part of a long tradition of practical memory training (also known as  mnemonics, memory sports, mental discipline, study skills, or cognitive learning,–) an area of study that is curiously located between Greek philosophy and self-help books.  And now, thanks to our transcription and translation of Oskar’s first diary entry, we know that such mental gymnastics also informed the ideas of the man who invented game theory.

Image Label; Cover of the book by Hans Gloy Gedächtnis-Ausbilding. 1913, and biographical entry in Degeners Wer ist’s? 1935

In Part 2 “How Can Librarians Teach with Materials in German Script?” We will discuss the digitized Oskar Morgenstern diaries as an Open Educational Resource, and will offer some resources for teaching German Script for students and teachers at Duke and beyond. For questions, contact Heidi Madden