• The History of Long-Term Archive…Pre-Computers

    We’ve seen that technologists can tell a lot about our past from geology, geography, artifacts and bits of bodies but to really know what people were thinking and doing we had to wait for writing.

    Sure we had edicts carved in stone but not every Joe Blow had his own obelisk.The Egyptians were first past the post office with the invention of papyrus, sheets of material made from bashing reeds which only grew along the Nile. We get the word for paper from papyrus which is ironic because the Chinese invented paper itself based on cotton fibre much later. The papyrus plant would not grow in Europe so very thin leather known as parchment was developed.

    Now we had the technology to record knowledge but it was still expensive and so still limited to royalty, the church and the filthy rich. Plus there was no way to copy a sheet of papyrus or parchment except by hand and the only people who could read and write were royal scribes or monks and naturally their focus was on their own business. Rarely, they would look elsewhere to record some mathematical or biological breakthroughs but mainly these were decrees and commandments.

    I have ignored pictorial art because the topic is becoming wider than I expected but I am sure you are familiar with things like the Bayeux Tapestry which is our best record of the Battle of Hastings. There are plenty of historical events and people recorded in paint and stored in the archives.

    The invention of papyrus, parchment and paper marked the birth of data archiving. See, we finally got there. It quickly became obvious that information recorded on irreplaceable sheets of material required great care in handling and storage. I bet you’ve heard of the mighty Library of Alexandria which was burnt down by Big Julie Caesar. I always thought this was the end of much recorded knowledge but in my research for this I discovered that it might not have suffered too badly in that attack, that most of the books were hand copies of others in Rhodes and Rome and that there are three subsequent events which may have seen the demise of this library. Either way it is not there now.

    Imagine what could happen with the loss of a single copy. Maybe the Roman aqueducts were actually railway bridges for bronze locomotives whose plans are long lost. Maybe the Minoans weren’t lost but developed space travel and just left.

    Real paper, based on cotton fibre, appeared in China in the 2nd century but the secrets involved in the process were closely protected such that it was a thousand years before the secrets were revealed to Europe via the Moors in Spain. If only the Chinese had as much respect for other peoples’ commercial secrets these days! The availability of this relatively cheap paper led to less important stuff like literature emerging and we still have original copies of Beowolf, the first English poem and Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’.

    Modern paper, based on wood pulp is one of the many (?) Canadian inventions of the 19th century. Unfortunately, this new paper stuff turns yellow and brittle with age so it is disappearing faster than the earlier sheets of papyrus and parchment. For example, the Magna Carta, written in 1297 on vellum (fine parchment) is in better condition than the American Declaration of Independence. (1776) Have you ever seen the effort put in to preserve these documents. http://tinyurl.com/bx3ue7q

    This is one example of the challenges facing long term archiving. It also shows that new technology which brings lower cost and greater convenience is not necessarily conducive to long term storage. I am going to get around to computer technology but next time let’s look at the advent of printing and its impact on the ordinary man.

    Mike Sparkes is author of the blog Obscure Aussie and an IT storage expert based in Brisbane, Australia.

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