Why preserving the written word is difficult

What’s called the Domesday Book was originally, back in 1086, a collection of hundreds of sheets of parchment, subsequently bound into two separate volumes called Little Domesday, which contained all the sheets for the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, and Great Domesday, which contained all the others under Norman rule at the time. It has been calculated that about 200 sheep would have been stunned and killed to create the parchment sheets for Great Domesday. The pelts were removed from the dead animals, soaked in lime, dehaired, then stretched out on a wooden frame so that they could be washed and scraped with a pumice block, to remove much grease and fat as possible. It was a long and careful job and the quality of the resulting work owed much to the skills of the craftsmen involved. The parchments for Domesday were very carefully prepared indeed.

But the Norman government did not leave the matter there. It is accepted by historians that the sheets were bound into volumes very shortly after their creation (another document, written in 1100, already refers to Domesday as “a book”). This was not a normal step in medieval Britain, as most administrative documents were simply tied together at the top, and rolled up. Getting Domesday bound book-wise in oak boards would have necessitated the parchment sheets leaving the royal household and being transported to the scriptorium of a monastery. The fact that the Norman government arranged for this to happen indicates their desire for Domesday to be very well-protected, and is the first visible sign of their commitment to pro-active preservation of the documents, rather than passively hoping for the best.

This was only the first of many bindings. Little Domesday was rebound sometime around 1200-1225, and then rebound again in 1320. About 1500 both Great and Little Domesdays were rebound in beech boards, and these covers were themselves replaced in 1819. And then again in 1869. In 1952 both volumes of Domesday were rebound back in oak, and the whole thing was taken apart and rebound yet again in 1985, when the greatest changes to the documents were made: Great Domesday was split into two volumes, and Little Domesday was split into three. All of these rebindings inflicted some minor damage to the original parchments, as new holes for the threads had to be punched each time, but nevertheless the rebindings were all costly, time-consuming and were only carried out because of a genuine preservation need.

The rebindings were not the only aspect of Domesday’s preservation which concerned its keepers. There was also the issue of exactly where to keep it. As far as we know, the Domesday volumes probably stayed within the royal household until the mid-16th century, when they were moved to the Exchequer of Receipt. This building burned down in 1834 but fortunately the volumes had already been moved by then to the Chapter House in Westminster Palace, where they were stored in a cupboard on the stairs. In 1846 they were in the Chapter House library, and in 1859 they were moved to Chancery Lane, where the new Public Record Office was being set up. In February 1918 the volumes were moved to Bodmin Prison in Devon, to avoid possible destruction by German Zeppelins. In August 1939 they were transported in a van to the women’s wing of a disused prison in Shepton Mallet, alongside 300 tons of other historical records, where they remained while London was blitzed. Today the volumes are held at the National Archives at Kew. All of these moves were carried out as part of a policy of active document preservation, either for long term protection because better premises had been found, or for short term protection due to warfare. On at least three occasions that we know of (1834, 1918 and during 1939-1945) the Domesday Book could have been destroyed if its keepers had not put in the effort to move it elsewhere.

So, we now have an answer to the question of why the Domesday Book has survived so long, and that is because the British government has carried out over nine hundred years of active document management, that’s why. If the Crown had done nothing in 1086 then Domesday would never have outlived the eleventh century. If we use a simplistic analogy in which resewing and rebinding the parchment sheets counts as a ‘migration to a new format,’ and in which moving the volumes to a different building counts as ‘migrating to a new server,’ then the information contained in Domesday Book has already been migrated through at least nine formats and seven servers. And there will be more formats and servers in the centuries to come.

Domesday is just one historical document out of millions which are kept in record repositories throughout the UK. There is a British Standard for keeping paper-based records, BS5454:2000. It recommends that paper should be stored in an environment steady at 16-19 degrees Centigrade, and between 45-60% relative humidity. All local authority archive services in the UK strive for their storage to meet BS5454’s standards, and the National Archives in London (TNA) have the authority to check the storage conditions of any such repository which holds Public Records (these are records defined in the 1968 Public Records Act). If you keep paper regularly outside this temperature and relative humidity band then your paper will not last as long as it could do. Exactly how long it will last will depend on a number of factors, such as how poor your environmental conditions actually are, and the chemical composition of the paper itself (very acidic paper will decay faster than lightly acidic paper, which in turn will decay faster than acid-free paper, and so on). But it’s reasonable to say that you could slash the likely lifetime of your paper document by 50% if you fail to be BS5454 compliant. Keeping paper within such a narrow temperature and relative humidity range actually takes a fair amount of active repository management: long term investments in buildings, power plant, environmental monitoring equipment, dehumidifers, trained staff. And if you want to keep your paper forever, then you need to keep all this infrastructure going forever as well.

And you thought paper preservation was easy? Suddenly, even digital preservation doesn’t look quite so hard.

So this is the first principle we have learned from paper preservation:

  • All preservation involves active management of the records. Passive management doesn’t work. Despite popular belief, it is simply not possible to create a record (any record), leave it lying around and forgotten for nine hundred years, and then expect it to still be readable. This is true for the Domesday Book of 1086, it is true for all your paper and photographic prints, and it is true for electronic records. If you want to keep records for their maximum lifespan then you need to commit yourself to a pro-active, ongoing action plan for a long time to come.

Anyone who thinks that the current appearance of Domesday mirrors how it would have looked back in the eleventh century is deluded.

Access

There is a second contributory factor to why Domesday Book is still here today, nearly a millennium after its creation. Nobody is allowed to look at it.

Letting people consult original historical documents has long been known to be one of the main reasons why documents get damaged. Users (‘searchers’ in record office jargon) will lean on a parchment map and jab at it with their fingers. They will turn folios by licking their fingertips, which transfers grease and acid to the paper. They will press the boards back to try to see what it written in the gutter of the spine. More subtly, the document itself will have been affected by its transfer from an environmentally-controlled strongroom to a warm and humid reading room. Then the document gets a similar environmental shock in reverse when it is returned overnight to its storage. And again the following day, when the searcher returns. Over time the paper will crinkle and turn yellow. The ink will fade due to the reading room light levels. Even when historical records are preserved to the very best of our abilities they still look different from how our ancesters viewed them. Photographs fade and paper yellows. Domesday Book, to return to our case study, has changed over the centuries. The ink, which was made from a mixture of gum arabic, water, iron salts and perhaps wine or beer too, was originally pure black. Now it is brown. The fading has not happened consistently, either; some sections have faded worse than others.

The solution is simple, just make a copy and give that to the searchers instead.

The principle here is that preservation can be separated from access. The keepers of the Domesday Book have kept it in two formats, a preservation format, which is the parchment original, and the access format, which is the multiple sets of printed copies you can buy in shops and search online. There is no need for the access format to have anything whatever to do with the preservation format. Much of the time, indeed, it is wholly different: Domesday’s preservation format is handwritten in 11th century bookhand, is unindexed, and is in medieval bastardised Latin, while the access format is often typeset, is indexed, and is in English. In no way does the modern experience of consulting the access format mirror the medieval experience of a scribe or clerk as he turns the pages of the original. No one expects it to. (even the preservation is fading)

This seems too obvious to say, yet everyone forgets it when it comes to digital preservation. A lot of people think that the exact appearance and full functionality of a digital record should be preserved in the access format. But this places a workload on digital preservation which no one ever expects from simple paper preservation. No wonder digital preservation looks hard if we give it a target which we do not even expect our paper preservation policy to meet. So we need to think realistically here, too. When we try to preserve a record for its maximum lifetime, what attributes of the record do we mean? Do we actually mean its appearance? Or do we mean its informational content? Or something else?

Our next lesson is therefore:

  • Try not to let people consult the original. Separate the preservation format from the access format, and only allow users to see the access format.

Selection

There is a third lesson to learn from the Domesday Book, which we will discover if we stress our original question differently. Instead of asking, why has the Domesday Book lasted so long? – let us ask, why has the Domesday Book lasted so long? Why this book, and not a different one? This question leads us on to the issue of selection.

Not everything can be saved forever. Most local authority archive services in the UK act on the basis that only about 5% of the paper created annually by their mother organisation (a county council, usually) is worth accessioning into the archives system. Think about that: 95% of all official local government paper records will get destroyed, consciously and deliberately. For private companies and informal organisations the proportion is even higher. Most paper records are ephemeral, and a good thing too. This is the reason why we are not paddling through a sea of paper. Walk into a stationers, and see how much paper there is: how many A4 pads, how many notebooks, how many reams of printer and photocopier paper. Within five or ten years not one sheet, probably, of all this will remain. Most paper does not even survive as long as a digital record on a computer. People will glibly say that paper survives for hundreds of years, but the average life expectancy of a real piece of paper is much less than that; weeks rather than years. You rip the paper out of the pad, use it for whatever purpose you need it for, such as a to-do list or to write some minutes; then when it has outlived its usefulness you bin it or lose it.

This sheer ephemerality of the written record is why we are not wading through documents hanging over from the 11th century, either, as the vast majority of those documents were lost or destroyed within a few years of their creation. Domesday Book survived because it was selected at birth for survival. No sooner had the scribes written it than the parchments were bound and the volumes safeguarded within locked oak chests. (Historians may regret that more has not survived, but most of us are not historians. Nor do historians have to do any work in keeping these documents readable – that’s an archivist’s job.) One of the major reasons that Domesday Book has lasted as long as it has is that its Norman creators of 1086AD wrote it on high quality parchment (rather than old scraps lying around), they immediately bound the sheets together (rather than waiting a few years to allow sheets to get lost), and they stored it in a locked wooden chest in the royal household (rather than on the bar at the back of the pub). Domesday Book is still around today because the people of 1086 did their job properly. Yet this is also why not much else has survived from 1086. Parchment, binding and chests cost money, so the effort was put into Domesday, and the rest were abandoned.

The principles are still the same today. If you want to create a written paper document which will survive for centuries, then you need to take the time and care to create it properly in the first place. Write it on acid-free paper, in a stable long life ink, then place it in a sturdy box, away from sunlight and extreme variations in temperature and humidity. This is effort, more effort certainly than what most of us put in when we jot something down on paper. But because this is such effort, you want to limit it to the absolutely necessary records. Life is too short to this more than you have to.

We have already seen that keeping paper for a few centuries requires a commitment to active management for generations. Now we have seen that paper preservation means we have to put in some real work at the very beginning of a record’s life, too. Extrapolating briefly to the digital environment, this lesson indicates that maximising a record’s life depends as much on the effort and care we take when creating the electronic file as it does on keeping it afterwards. It indicates, perhaps, that we might need to abandon our usual word processor. It also indicates that we should allow many of our digital records to die.

Here then are our next lessons:

  • Creating the record properly at the start helps. If you want to keep a paper document forever then it helps to create it on the highest quality acid-free paper you can get. You record your name, the date you created the record, and why you created it. If it’s a group photograph then you write on the back the names of the people involved, and where and when it was taken. Then you place this record in an acid-free folder, inside an acid-free box, and you store the box in a BS5454-compliant archives repository. You can do these steps later, but at the cost of the record’s life expectancy, or at the cost of lost knowledge about the record.
  • You cannot preserve everything. Active preservation of paper records costs money, and if you want to keep paper records forever, then that costs a lot of money. So, paper records get selected. Active preservation of digital records also costs: it costs money, time, and storage. Moreover, the fact that creating the record properly in the first place takes time and effort, means that we don’t want to do this for every record, just those which we expect will be worth it.

Minimising the workload

People are useless. People will email their colleagues at work explaining the details of the spreadsheet they are attaching, only to fail to attach the spreadsheet itself, all because they are too lazy to check an email before clicking send. They will spend days crafting a report to their manager, then cannot be bothered to spend two minutes to spell check it. They will send an email with nothing in the subject field. They will take a photograph, then omit to write on the reverse the names of the people in the photo, or where it was taken, or when. They will stuff all their official papers under the bed. They will set up a nest of sub-folders in their email inbox, then become too lazy to move emails into them, so that their inbox groans under the weight of thousands of unsorted messages and the only way to find anything is by searching the entire lot.

Any realistic preservation policy, whether paper or digital, needs to take account of this. The inherent difficulties in preserving paper for hundreds of years would be irrelevant if people could be trusted to carry out the work themselves, but people tend to be lazy and useless, and so preservation needs to be given to a dedicated member of staff who is trained and paid to carry out the preservation function, and who can be fired if she fails. And this is the fourth and final reason why Domesday Book has survived nine hundred years: because someone has been paid to ensure that it survives. Without this ongoing commitment from the British government the Domesday Book would have been lost generations ago.

This lesson is particularly true of digital preservation, which is potentially so much more complicated than paper preservation. If your organisation is genuinely committed to preserving selected digital records for their maximum lifetime then it needs to write that responsibility into someone’s job description.

But we also need to ensure that this is an achievable and realistic job. As time goes on the number of records being saved for long term preservation will increase, and the workload involved in preservation will increase in line. We have to set up our procedures at the beginning so that they give our new digital records manager the least amount of long term work to do. For instance, we could (in theory) adopt a weird policy of migrating digital records to new formats every three years. In year 3 we will have x number of records to migrate. In year 6 we will have at least 2x records to migrate, the original batch plus all the records created in the meantime. In year 9 we will have at least 3x records to migrate, three times the original workload. Over the six year period from year 3 to year 9 we will have carried out a total of 6x migrations on a quantity of records which is only 3x in size. So, the policy we have set up has created workload out of thin air. In order to be realistic, whatever policy we set up needs to be one which gives us the least amount of additional work to do in the foreseeable future.

If you are reading this as an individual, rather than as an employee of an organisation, please do not think that this does not apply to you. For you are likely to be just as busy nine years from now as you are today, if not busier. If you have digital records which you wish to preserve for as long as possible, essentially forever, then you need to put in place actions today which will minimise your actions tomorrow.

Our last lesson is therefore:

  • A good preservation strategy is one which gives us the least amount of work to do in the future. Remember that we want to reduce our future workload as much as possible. It is not possible to reduce it to zero, but we can adopt digital preservation procedures which are work-lite, thereby freeing up time and resources for our real business.

Summary

Let’s sum up what we have learned from this brief examination of paper preservation.

  • All preservation involves active management of the records.
  • Creating the record properly at the start helps.
  • Try not to let people consult the original.
  • You cannot preserve everything.
  • A good preservation strategy is one which gives us the least amount of work to do in the future.

Sources on Domesday Book: Michael Gullick, ‘The Great and Little Domesday Manuscripts’ in Domesday Book Studies (Alecto 1987); John D. Cantwell, The Public Record Office 1858-1958 (HMSO 1991); Domesday Exhibition Guide (HMSO 1986).

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