Vellum – the long view of data infrastructure

by Paul Maharg on 15/02/2015

Yestreen I wanted to look at an activity I put together for students, oh way back in 1995.  I’m sure every law teacher has a similar one.  It was on statutory interpretation, written up briefly in this book chapter.[1]  I located the file, clicked — and got the wee MS Word for Mac dialogue saying, effectively, sorry, can’t open.  Och.  I kind of suspected that would happen.  There are workarounds of course.  But maybe in another 20 years we won’t be able to read early Word documents at all.  We need to take a long view of our data infrastructure, and preserve for not the next couple of years or decades but at least the next few millennia.  But there are other issues and consequences here.

In chapter four of Transforming Legal Education I focused on glossed literature from the thirteenth century.  My argument was first that glossed mss were a sophisticated way of learning law, a remarkable invention that coped well with the information overload from the twelfth century onwards when students and lawyers were confronted with the burgeoning literatures accrescing around the Canon Law and the Justinianic reception.  Second, our own information revolution in the digital domain was swerving us back into the past, beyond and behind books, towards solutions to our own information overloads that bore striking resemblances to the thirteenth century glossatorial solutions.  Third, we could learn much from the glossators, from their mode of composition as well as teachers who recorded using the glosses with students; and fourth, we might want to revisit the method with our students today.

In reviews of the book I noted that everyone avoided talking about that chapter.  Uninterested maybe; or perhaps the difficulty of getting reliable sources of parchment and vellum, these days, to test out the thesis.  Have you ever handled vellum, a glossed ms in particular.  You should: the internet will never quite be the same again.  It’s worth getting the feel of it, its supple thin density and toughness, the faint pin pricks, the suggestion of ruled lines, the square blackness of the textura that lies flatly on the surface of the skin, barely penetrating (easier to re-use the vellum by literal erasure, scraping with knife or pumice), unlike the print of early books, the dies pressed deep into the paper; and around the textura the more fluid gloss, smaller cursive, crowded abbreviations, the use of rubricated markers, colours for place-marking.  And as you read, textura to glossa,  follow glossa to glossa, there’s a growing sense of a community of meanings and textual responses, an interpretive community leaning into the central textura, and the sense, too, of how easy it is to memorise the page object, where place on page is so powerfully signified.  It draws you in: the page is an immersive world of voices, a scholarly community of statement, comment, qualification, critique; and only the edge of the page stops its expansion.

Today I read Vint Cerf’s comments on the problem of preserving documents from our short-lived digital past.  It’s so needed, and who can but applaud his idea of ‘digital vellum’:

“The solution is to take an X-ray snapshot of the content and the application and the operating system together, with a description of the machine that it runs on, and preserve that for long periods of time. And that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future.”

Recreating the past in the future – that was what I was writing about in Transforming; but not about replicating the past but about learning from it and learning with it – the difference between reading the past, like a machine code reader, and interpreting it. Success seldom teaches what is worth knowing.  What did we lose as well as gain, moving from glossed texts to commentaria?  From manuscript cultures to print cultures?  From print cultures to digital text (which we’re still in the middle of)?  In our consistent failure to consider what we’ve lost in the past of data infrastructure, how can we possibly consider rightfully the future of it.

We can, though, learn from the present.  One of the key issues in this immense enterprise is who will carry out and archive such a datastore of X-ray snapshots, that will increase to almost unimaginable vastness.  That governments control it is unthinkable.  The idea that a commercial corporation such as Google or Elsevier be entrusted with it is also unthinkable (can you imagine our entire past being massively paywalled like their academic journals), and not just because of the commercial undertakings involved but because commercial entities have relatively short lifespans.  In European history (I can’t speak for China, India or any other world region), apart from religious bodies (eg Benedictines), the longest lived corporations have been universities.  They’ve undergone huge changes since the days of vellum, but they may be one of the few guardians who can be trusted to carry the data infrastructure of our past into the future.

  1. [1]See Maharg, P., (2000), ‘Context cues cognition’: writing, rhetoric and legal argumentation, in Learning to Argue in Higher Education, eds Richard Andrews & Sally Mitchell, Heinemann/Boynton Cook, New York.  The activity involved setting a problem – there’s been a toy craze for longbows, kids are buying everything from willow sticks to laminated PowerBows, indiscriminate hunting parties are organised on the web, archery battles in public parks, etc.  With an election coming up the government has asked you to draft legislation to deal with the problem, and quickly.  How are you going to draft it?  If they looked hard enough they’d find the Crossbows Act 1986; but the mischief here is subtly different.  Students enjoyed it, and it gave them a flavour of thinking through a complexity of a social problem and the place of legislation in dealing with it.

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