The ‘best’ textbook ever written about forensic handwriting identification…

Okay, determining the ‘best’ of anything is always a challenge. It is, in almost every instance, a highly subjective decision based on some set of appealing features or characteristics… appealing to the person making the determination, of course. And, because this is my blog, that person happens to be me.

In fairness, there are a number of authors who have written extensively on the topic: Osborn, Ellen, Hilton, Harrison, Hilton, among others (and I apologize to those I have left off this list). I have read all of those textbooks (including most editions) and each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Nonetheless, in my opinion the best general textbook written to date on the topic of handwriting identification was done by co-authors Roy A. Huber and A.M. (Tom) Headrick, both long-time document examiners in the R.C.M. Police laboratory system.

That textbook is Handwriting Identification: Facts and Fundamentals.1


The authors explained that they had two main objectives for their text:

First, it is an endeavour to present, in a general manner, a new approach to the study of document examination and to handwriting identification in particular. It records a review and consolidation of much of the worthwhile material that has been written on handwriting identification in the English language in the last 100 years. In this consolidation, an attempt has been made to extract valid principles, to dispute, if warranted, previously alleged principles, and to present some new thoughts that put the discipline into a proper perspective for current times. In this respect, it may be the first, if not the foremost, endeavour of its kind. Although it is not offered as a paradigm, it is hoped that the organization of the book will facilitate the addition of new material by readers or writers as it becomes available. It will require such contributions if it is to evolve into a recognized textbook that this discipline so desperately needs.

Second, it is an endeavour to make the information understandable and usable by the legal profession. Concern for this aspect of the matter has prompted the use of a question and answer format. This format, hopefully, will assist in the phrasing of questions to, and the understanding of, responses to be expected from expert witnesses, and/or those who profess to be qualified writing examiners. If, in the process, it serves to distinguish the competent from the incompetent, the discipline will be better for it.

In general, I feel that the authors succeeded admirably with both of their objectives. They did, in fact, present this information in a new and useful way. And they did so using terminology that most people will understand.

One author (Huber) gave an interesting acknowledgment in the foreword:

It may not be an overly scholarly presentation. There are topics that I have touched on because I think they are important to the discipline that I don’t fully understand myself. But I wanted to make a beginning. I’d rather attempt to do something — and fail, than attempt to do nothing — and succeed. Would that I had the talent of others to express myself more eloquently, perhaps then, what I have written would be less of a bore and more of an inspiration.

In general I feel that the textbook is very well written. It is eloquent, interesting and inspiring using a relaxed style and language. The question-and-answer format works very well though it invariably results in a bit of overlap between topics and answers. The most important thing about the text is that the information provided is, for the most part, complete, balanced and reasonably timely. A particularly positive aspect of the text, and the main reason I consider it to be the ‘best’ such textbook, is the willingness of the authors to explore and discuss difficult and challenging topics in an honest and open manner. I wish more people would take that approach.

Don’t get me wrong — this text is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination (what textbook ever is?)

For one thing, things change over time. Some change a lot, some very little. Having been published in 1999 the textbook is still one of the more modern available but it is admittedly already 15 years out of date (and counting). Even at the time it was written some of what the authors provide to the reader was considered ‘debatable’ and/or ‘cutting edge’. In terms of the latter information their presentation was limited, even incorrect. Indeed, there are select parts of the text that I consider a bit incomplete or possibly misleading in light of today’s understanding. I will endeavour to discuss those specific topics in other, individual blog posts.

But, on balance, the text must be rated as excellent, even superlative. I recommend it to anyone professing to be a forensic document examiner (FDE), both trainee and experienced examiner alike. It is also a great resource for lawyers or judges dealing with FDE evidence, or for anyone else with an interest in the field.


Footnotes:

  1. Published by CRC Press in 1999, ISBN: 084931285X, 9780849312854.

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