Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The case for vellum

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: James Gray: The case for vellum. As MPs prepare to debate whether to abolish vellum, Conservative MP James Gray writes about why the arguments against it are getting his goat (Politics Home). In this case the technology in question is a traditional one that, MP Gray argues, should remain in use to record Acts of Parliament. Excerpt:
Second, vellum is a great deal more durable than paper. It cannot be torn or crushed, it is somewhat resilient to fire. It needs very little special maintenance as the vellum scrolls in the parliamentary archive attest to. It lasts for up to 5,000 years, by comparison with a few hundreds of years by the best archival paper. Who could be confident that paper documents, even less those stored electronically, would be as long-lived as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Lindisfarne Gospels, or Domesday Book? If Magna Carta had been written on paper it would have been lost around 1465, some time before the birth of King Henry Vlll. The oldest complete bound book in Europe, the St John’s Gospels put in the coffin of St Cuthbert in the year 687, can still be read as clearly today as when it was written. That is because it was written on vellum. The use of vellum guarantees that no matter what may happen in the future – wars, riots, floods, fires – our acts of parliament will be preserved for all time.
I can see his point. Sometimes older technologies are more robust than newer ones. Just the other day I was arguing in a university committee that we should not start preserving doctoral theses only in electronic format. All it takes is one big solar flare or one EMP attack and all those electronic records are gone. (But I was proposing that we keep printed copies or at least microfilm copies. Vellum did not come up.)

Background to the vellum story is here and here.