On 15 February 2016 a BBC news article announced that the UK is to continue printing and storing its laws on vellum. Hoorah shouted the man whose livelihood was secured. Boo cried the digital preservationists whose jobs depend on us creating more digital material. No goats were available for comment.
Historically, supporters of analogue have been dismissed out of hand as a bunch of traditionalist, stuck in the mud Luddites; it has become somewhat of a cliché amongst the digitisers to ridicule people like Nicholson Baker for having the audacity to suggest that a nation’s cultural history shouldn’t be destroyed en masse. Yet this dismissive attitude is increasingly less valid. People clearly comfortable with using digital technology were declaring their support for Parliaments’ decision on the comment sections of online news agencies and forums and indeed here I am, a vellum-advocate, writing about it on a blog as part of a digital curation university module. It seems as if it’s the digital preservationists, not the analogue supporters, are the ones who are out-of-touch. So what’s going on?
The oft-repeated phrase in the digital preservation world is “the message not the medium”. What is important and what needs preserving it is claimed is the content of the data, not the physical medium on which that data is inscribed. But is this really true? The work of cultural historians has increasingly alerted us to the fact that the medium can be as important, and in many cases more important, than the content because the medium chosen has symbolic and representational significance. To take one example, Eric Ketelaar has written that the content of the Domesday Book commissioned by William the Conqueror was actually fairly useless in administrative terms. Yet the existence of the Book as a physical object symbolised and conveyed William’s near mythical royal power.
Moreover physical objects resonate with the public and elicit a wealth of emotional and intellectual responses in a way that digital copies don’t. It seems highly unlikely for example that the thousands who flocked to see the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition in 2015, at which two of the four original documents were on view, would have been impressed if they had simply been shown the contents of those documents on computer screens. Would Americans revere the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution to the same extent if it was merely something you downloaded from the Library of Congress website? These may seem trite observations but they reflect the indescribable but undoubtedly powerful intangible benefits that can be gleaned from experiencing archival objects in the flesh. In the case of UK laws being printed on vellum I think all those declaring their support recognised that we risk losing the essential historical associations the use of such a medium elicits. For the public, the medium clearly does matter.
So why do digital preservationists seem so blind to the role of the medium in shaping how content is understood and experienced? A cynic may suggest that this reflects their tacit acknowledgement of the limitations of digitisation; an attitude of “we can’t reflect the symbolism of the physical medium so we’ll say it isn’t important”. Yet if we allow ourselves to accept this viewpoint we risk losing the rich, deeper understanding that comes from viewing and handling content in original, physical forms. Ultimately the choice we will all have to make is whether we want to continue enjoying the profound human experiences that come from interacting with the physicality of our world or whether we want to opt for the insipid sterility of the digital realm.