Part 2: How can Librarians Teach with Materials in German Script?

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

The Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library holds  the papers of Oskar Morgenstern, whose diaries span the years 1917-1977. The diaries were digitized, a few years ago, in a collaboration between the Rubenstein Library  and  the University of Graz, Austria, and can be seen at the Oskar Morgenstern Website.  This 50-year-long personal archive of a renowned scientist is an ideal Open Educational Resource for teaching with primary sources. How can librarians help students use this wonderful material in courses at Duke and at other institutions?

An understanding of  the historic development of German Script will show why the Morgenstern Papers are very approachable, even though they look difficult to decipher at first.  The older, pre-1900 versions of German Script allowed for many individual and regional variations for forming letters. The chart below shows the many ways in which an individual writer might have shaped their letters in the18th and 19th century:

The reason why 20th century Script is easier to read is because, between 1910 and 1915, several regional German-language  school systems simplified German Script to make it easier for students to learn. Ludwig Sütterlin, a graphic artist working in Berlin, designed a script for the Prussian educational ministry that became popular very quickly. This script was known as the Sütterlin Script (Sütterlinschrift), and became the handwriting taught in most German schools until 1941, including the ones attended by the young Oskar Morgenstern.

Taking a closer look at Morgenstern’s handwriting, it is interesting to compare the cover page inscription with the first page of the diary.  It is immediately clear that the loose leaf inscription was added later, when Morgenstern’s handwriting had become more modernized.  It would be totally possible for students to learn to decipher Morgenstern’ s hand (with some human help and some charts) during a session with these materials. Furthermore, as the team at the University of Graz continues their transcription, students can use the website to improve their German reading skills by comparing the scans of the original pages with the transcription, and they can copy and paste the plain text into a translating tool like DeepL.

German Script and Blackletter have an ideological association with nationalism in 1871 (see “Antiqua-Fraktur debate”) and a visual association with fascist propaganda under Hitler. It is understandable that American students associate Blackletter with fascism.  In fact, today Germans themselves recoil whenever populists and rightwing groups use Blackletter in their event publicity. However, Nazi Germany did not invent these styles. The historical  irony is that the Nazi government first embraced  German Script and Blackletter typeface as “German” and then outlawed the styles in 1941 as “Jewish.”  That is why it is important to teach reading German Script and Blackletter with circumspection and as an auxiliary tool of historical research.

While the styles have that tainted heritage, students should not forget that these styles were also used by diverse German-language communities across the centuries. Rubenstein Library has an amazing collection of German Studies materials and interdisciplinary materials in the German language  across several of the Rubenstein Centers serve to prove this point. Outstanding collections in German Studies are German Americana, the Harold Jantz Collection, German Judaica and Religion, Alchemy, Science, and Medicine, World War II and National Socialism, and collections for the study of Germany in the 19th and 20th Centuries, including important literary editions, and editions that illustrate the history of printing.  Other examples of German-language materials across the disciplines are the Heschel Collection, the J. Walter Thompson archives in advertising, and the Viennese Economists’ Archives. In fact, a search for German-language materials in the Rubenstein Collections comes up with over 300,000 hits. Our teaching with Rubenstein Library materials ensures that these archival collections never become a  Library of  the Unreadable. The Morgenstern example shows just what efforts and resources are needed for transcription and translation, as well as what treasures may be uncovered in the process.

What follows are some resources for learning to read  and write German Script. The  Geist Institute  in Winston Salem, NC, offers a week long Script course every year. The course draws researchers and genealogists from across the country, as well as staff and volunteer researchers from the Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem, an archive for the local community of Moravians, founded by German protestants (the Herrnhuters) in 1753.  Other German Script workshops in the US are held at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, PA. , and at the Center for Family History & Genealogy and Department of History at Brigham Young University, Utah, which also offers a thorough online tutorial, the German Script Tutorial.

The  Geist Institute in Winston-Salem, NC will hold the workshop again this year, from July 25 to August 1, 2020. The workshop leader, Julie Tomberlin, Ph.D., recommends the following key resources to prepare and deepen the study of  German Script:

  • Dearden, Fay, and Leland K. Meitzler, 2013, Deciphering Gothic records: useful hints for helping you read “Old German” script!, provides tables of Old German Script alphabet variations.
  • Digitale Schriftkunde, Bavarian State Archives, provides examples and transcription by century, and is a good addition to the the German Script Tutorial from the Center for Family History & Genealogy and Department of History at Brigham Young University, Utah.
  • Minert, Roger P. 2013, Deciphering handwriting in German documents: analyzing German, Latin, and French in historical manuscripts, provides a history of German Script, and gives many tips on best practices in reading German Script, including reference works.
  • Schober, Katherine, 2018, Tips and tricks of deciphering German handwriting: a translator’s tricks of the trade for transcribing German genealogy documents, provides a good starting point for understanding strategies for working on German Script documents efficiently. For example, a reader can start by looking at how a particular writer forms the common words like articles and question words, they can look for distinctly formed letters across several documents by the same writer, and build a register of how particular letters are formed.
  • Süß, Harald. 1991. Deutsche Schreibschrift Lesen und Schreiben lernen (2 volumes: Lehrbuch and Übungsbuch)  Augsburg: Augustus-Verl., is a highly visual introduction to German Script together with many examples and detailed notes on stroke order. Learning the stroke order for each letter helps trace older more varied forms of handwriting when working with original documents.
  • Verdenhalven, Fritz, 1994, Die deutsche Schrift: ein Übungsbuch = The German script. Frankfurt/M.: Verl. f. Standesamtswesen, offers many examples of script and transcription side by side, which is very helpful in training the eye of the reader.

Digital Tools for reading Script are emerging. For example, the archive for German Colonial History has developed a reading tool called  Old German Script-Typewriter (Kurrent-Schreibmaschine). You type in the letters you can decipher, and the tool looks in various historical dictionaries for a term that might fit.  Another tool, Alte Deutsche Schrift allows you to enter words in plain text, and see the Script version underneath; this makes it possible to double check a transcription, by mapping every transcribed letter back to what the word should look like in Script. The site also helps to train the eye; enter your name in the text field and and click through results in several styles:

For more information about Script resources, especially more detail about the Geist Institute Script course in Winston-Salem, NC, contact Heidi Madden.