Help Reading Faded Handwriting

Need help reading faded handwriting in your research?

When archivists encounter faded documents in archives or libraries, it can be a challenge just to read the print or handwriting. Here are some solutions if you need help reading faded handwriting in original documents, on microfilm, or in a digital file. And I don’t get to say this often, but these remedies are quite inexpensive.

Help Reading Faded HandwritingReading Faded Handwriting in Original Documents

To increase the contrast on a faint or faded document, place it inside a yellow-tinted sheet protector and photocopy. The sheet protector you use does not have to be fancy or expensive.

Please note: The sheet protector you buy may only be open on the two short ends. If so, slit the one of the long sides. This way you will not abrade, tear, or damage original documents sliding them in and out of the sheet protector. And never, never store documents in this kind of plastic over the long term, even if the manufacturer promises it’s “acid-free.” Acid is found in wood-based products, such as paper or cardboard. So promising that plastic is acid-free is like saying fruit is gluten-free; it never had any gluten to begin with!

One more note: include yellow sheet protectors in the research kit you to courthouses, libraries, and archives.

Reading Faded Handwriting on Microfilm

The same principle works when you’re reading at a downward-projecting microfilm reader. I always carry sheets of yellow paper with me on trips to libraries and archives.

Placing the yellow paper on the bottom of the microfilm reader increases the contrast on the image that is projected (see featured image above). And that not only helps you decipher handwriting, but also doesn’t fatigue your eyes as quickly. And just as with the sheet protectors, no need for expensive, bond, or acid-free paper.

Help Reading Faded Handwriting

Excerpt from a April 3, 1864, letter with faded ink. Very minimal contrast was added digitally by the archives to make the document more legible. (Washington Ives Papers – MS 44, Florida State Library Manuscript Collection).

Reading Faded Handwriting in Digital Files

Do you have a digital scan of an original document but it’s hard to read? Use a yellowish filter in your image management software to increase the contrast on your existing scans and downloads. If the scan is poor or low quality to begin with, the yellow filter cannot improve blurry scans of poor or

Photodegradation is the fancy word for why ink fades. According to the Library of Congress, “Ultraviolet rays can break down the chemical bonds and thus fade the color(s) in an object–it is a bleaching effect. Some objects may be more prone to fading, such as dyed textiles and watercolors.”

All of these remedies have yellow as the common denominator. Using yellow contracts forr help reading faded handwriting works – and preserves aging eyesight like mine. Post your solutions for reading faded handwriting or text in the comments.

About the Author:

Nancy Loe has an MA in American History and an MLS in Library Science and Archives. She has appeared on PBS’s American Experience, at Rootstech, SCGS Jamboree, and state and regional genealogy conferences. Her website was featured in Family Tree Magazine's “Social Media Mavericks: 40 to Follow.”

6 Comments

  1. Nancy Loe 17 March 2018 at 6:27 PM - Reply

    Inverting images is another great thing to try. Thx, Greta.

  2. Greta Koehl 24 January 2012 at 6:34 PM - Reply

    I’ll have to try this one. I remember on FamilySearch there used to be a “negative image” option – that often worked well, too.

  3. Nancy Loe 24 January 2012 at 12:55 PM - Reply

    Pauleen, the background color change can really help.

    Judy, I want to thank you for all the nice things you say in your blog about mine.

    Hi Michelle! Did you go to Mesa Expo this year?

  4. Michelle Goodrum 24 January 2012 at 5:53 AM - Reply

    I’ve used the yellow sheet tip but not the change of color background as Pauleen suggests. Thanks to both of you!

  5. Judy Webster 24 January 2012 at 5:29 AM - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this advice. I have learnt so much from your blog posts and your e-book.

  6. Cassmob (Pauleen) 24 January 2012 at 5:22 AM - Reply

    Great tip, thanks! I’ve used the change of colour background from photos taken of microfilms but never these strategies…I’ll be trying them for sure.

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