Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

April 2, 2011

Trithemy & the smell of old books

Filed under: essay — Tags: — Sam @ 11:37 pm

NB: This is a slightly tidied-up version of my presentation notes from a talk I gave at Eastercon 2010.

“Trithemy” means the loss of information through the decay of the physical media that carries it, or the loss of any tools necessary to read it.

It’s a coinage from Trithemius, who was a frankly amazing man. Reading about him first started me thinking about this. He disliked printing, because the books were less durable, and because it meant books weren’t being copied mindfully by scholars who could improve & redact them, and merge different versions. Mind you, he was a born manager, and never worked his way up through the usual monastic channels, so it’s unlikely he ever spent much time in the scriptorium himself; we have to take his views with a bit of salt.

“All of you know the difference between a manuscript and a printed book. The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years. Yet, there are many who think they can entrust their works to paper. Hoc posteritas iudicabit – only time will tell.” — Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim. De Laude Scriptorum (1492), ch. 7, tr. Roland Behrendt.

Information wants to be lost. It’s a constant battle against entropy, and we all know how that goes. Some things can’t be encoded—there is no way to represent them in any way other than themselves. A lot of what I learnt as a chemistry student involved intuition, fine shades of vision, and muscle memory; there’s no way to teach those from a textbook or a video, only from another person and from experience. We couldn’t record everything that happens even if we wanted to, and we’re in a better position to do that than any other generation who’ve ever lived. We can’t put a man on the moon next year, or in five years’ time, even using the same processes we used before. The UK is facing a critical shortage of nuclear engineers, despite having built and operated a great many nuclear plants in the past.

A basic question: Why do we want to preserve information, and for what purpose?

    Either for reference, or for a backup.
    To use later; for other people to use later; so that we will not be forgotten.
    Because we have a visceral fear of loss.
    To protest cultural erasure.

Of course, some people want to destroy it.

    Cultural warfare – to subjugate a people or a class.
    Or from an ideological opposition to learning in general, because learning is so often used as a tool of political & social repression.
    Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered all philosophy books from states other than Qin burned in 213 BC.
    Spanish destruction of Maya books
    Burning the books of heretics. Generally very enthusiastic about this.
    Trying to suppress Judaism. (There’s also some cultural conflict internal to Judaism here, with the destruction or deprecation of Yiddish texts in comparison to Hebrew.)
    To be freed from the chains of the past (cf. John Barnes’s Thousand Cultures series, where history is irretrievably muddled in an effort to avoid cultural conflict)
    Because it’s immoral (Bonfire of the Vanities; Farenheit 451; private diaries, including Byron and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu)
    When the creator doesn’t want it to survive (Virgil’s Aeneid, Hopkins’ early poems, Larkin’s diaries)

History of archiving: papyrus, paper, weird shit media. The best reference for this section is Papermaking by Dard Hunter.

“Heaven does not permit such a divine art to be made easy for mortals here below.” — Fr. Imberdis, S.J., Papyrus sive Ars conficiendae Papyri (1693)

    Stone is easy to carve, with a decent blade and a mallet, if you’re not trying to do anything complicated. Therefore, Ogham, designed specifically for ease of stone- or wood-carving.
    Clay holds impressions really well, and can be stored almost forever. It’s intensely vulnerable to flooding or impact, however.
    Papyrus is hard and complicated to make, and doesn’t fold (thus: scrolls). Parchment was a compromise, invented when supplies of papyrus were running low. Paper is much easier to produce in large quantities.
    Paper follows the standard tech trajectory: first work out how to make it good, then work out how to make it crap because crap is cheap.
    Stamping-mills and rags produce really good paper. Anything with fibres in can be used for that, so worn-out clothes are what’s generally used.
    1666: English Parliament decrees that only wool may be used to bury the dead. Encourages wool trade and reserves other fibres for papermaking.
    1682: The Hollander is first recorded. It’s basically a set of huge churning blades, which cut the fibres so the resulting paper is easier and quicker to make but has less strength.
    1684: Edward Lloyd makes paper out of asbestos. There’s a line in one of Cory Doctorow’s books, about how in the 1970s it was normal to look at any weird object and say “that would make a great bong”, and in the 2000s it was “that would make a great wifi antenna”. In the 17th century it was “that would make great paper”. No matter what sort of weird vegetable matter or natural substance you can find, someone probably tried making paper out of it.
    1719: René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur makes paper out of wood filaments.
    1774: Scheele invents chlorine-lime bleach
    1840s: Mechanical pulping of wood
    1861: French gov’t stops insisting on stamping-mill paper for Stamp Office.
    Rosin-alum sizing introduces sulphuric acid even to 100% rag paper.

Their failure modes, and efforts to remedy them.

    Paper containing wood (specifically, lignin) is acidic unless specially treated, and the lignin and hemicellulose molecules react with the acid to a) turn it yellow and b) smell nice. The smell is diagnostic, ie. you can tell what sort of paper it is and what’s happening to it by the smell. It’s a complicated chemical soup usually containing acetic acid, vanillin, anisol, benzaldehyde, and furfural/furan-2-carboxaldehyde. It’s highly path dependent, so the smell of each book is unique.
    At high temperatures or under UV (including sunlight), it oxidises too, but oxidation is not relevant at STP – so special oxygen-free facilities are more or less a waste of money. (Though they do keep bugs, mould, &c. out.)
    Nobody noticed that the new, cheaper paper would do this till 1930, when books made of it, er, started doing this.
    Kelmscott Press books don’t smell at all; Morris was obsessive about proper paper.

Preservation techniques
Cold is good, but consistency is more important. Humidity should be around 45% – too high causes mold & rot, too low makes it dry & brittle. Air circulation is important.
Intersperse carbonate-buffered paper – open packing helps a lot. Single sheets never give the characteristic smell.
Split in plane & insert good paper in between the halves.
Deacidification techniques: diethyl zinc infusion. Works well, if you get it all out; strengthens & lightens paper, and adds oxide buffer. If you don’t get it all out, the books catch fire when exposed to oxygen. Plants have to be sited well away from libraries, because the reagent has a nasty habit of exploding. This makes it basically uneconomic to do.

History of archiving: magnetic, optical, internet/cloud.

    All these methods are summarizable as plastic, and prey to all the ills that plastic is heir to. MacLeod, The Sky Road (cite? I remember a scene with the grey dust of the magnetic media falling out of a disk case, but can’t find it looking back. May well be remembering something else). CDs haven’t been around long enough for their ageing abilities to be properly assessed.
    Magnetic storage is vulnerable to field effects.
    Internet storage looks better, but relies on vastly more layers of technology, and in the end it’s just sitting on a hard drive somewhere else.

Their failure modes.

    The media themselves decay and break, and the magnetic domains break down.
    Increased complexity of the tech tree—tech FOREST—required to support them, and unavailability of the hardware needed to read them/display them. 5.25” floppies, or even OHP sheets, generally can’t be used these days without special and unusual equipment. Information may not be transcribed to the new medium for any number of reasons, including inefficient curation, or just taking advantage of the change to do some spring cleaning.
    Transcribing “up” to a new medium introduces data loss too, because every new system introduces new constraints on what you can do. (Database fields, for instance.)
    Media may not be forward compatible: the 1986 Domesday Project is only viewable by emulation, or by using a very few legacy systems, eg. in the British Library. HOWEVER! This is at least as much because of social/legal considerations of data/project ownership. Given the number of layers involved, the IP entanglements and the project-ownership and -investment are wearisomely prohibitive. It’s like negotiating separately for the books, the crypto key, the card catalogue, the shelving that fits them, and the contract for the only librarian who understands the language the catalogue’s written in.

History of archiving: the oral tradition

    Amazingly reliable, with enough people, but it depends on performance; constantly checking it against others’ memories, ie. social consensus. Everyone owns the data, in a manner of speaking. The only text is the bard, and in many societies every bard has/is a slightly different text.
    Oral intersects with written at Ossian. Faujas de St Fond, Marianne MacLean of Torloisk (a dazzling, intellectual, talented bluestocking, living on a clifftop on Mull in the eighteenth century, an epic journey and an even more epic sea crossing from the culture of Edinburgh), and Dr Johnson. Johnson didn’t believe in written Gaelic old enough, or Gaelic poets good enough, but then he was the same man who managed to ride twenty feet from Mull blackhouses and not see them, and to dismiss as uneducated, untravelled savages men who had served in the army in Canada.
    The limitations of the oral tradition: the colophon at the end of The Dream of Rhonabwy says that nobody can tell this tale without a book, by reason of the complexity of it.

“And this story is called the Dream of Rhonabwy. And here is the reason why no one, neither bard nor storyteller, knows the Dream without a book – by reason of the number of colours that were on the horses, and all that variety of rare colours both on the arms and their trappings, and on the precious mantles, and the magic stones.” — The Dream of Rhonabwy, tr. Jones & Jones

Language is a technology too – linguistic shifts can make meaning much less accessible.

Go, little book! Go, my little tragedy!
Before I die, God grant thy maker
Might to make a comedy!
But, little book–don’t envy other work.
Humble yourself beneath poetry,
bow down and kiss the ground
where Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Stace, and Lucan walk.

I fear there’s such diversity in English,
written, spoken, type, or txt,
pray God that none miscopy thee!
- or worse, mismeasure your lines aloud.
And wherever you’re read, or even sung,
I beseech God you’re understood!
Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer

The big push to regularize spelling &c. in the 18th C. was to try and slow down changes and make sure authors’ works stayed readable. (Cf. Bragg, the Adventure of English.) Relates to the effort to translate everything into Arabic so Arabic-speaking scholars everywhere could have access. Also alchemical notation – can still follow & use their notebooks, but only if you know what the terms refer to, and we’ve lost a lot of that or can only reconstruct by guesswork.

Access vs preservation, and accessibility vs coverage. Relevant texts here are Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, David Brin’s Uplift books, and Wikipedia.

    Just because something exists doesn’t mean anyone knows about it; just because someone knows about it doesn’t mean everyone knows about it; and even if everyone knows about it it may be impossible to get at.
    The eternal Wikipedia debate: inclusivity vs being able to get to the good stuff through an ocean of Pokemon-related crap.

The ease of commercial capture of digital data – a lot of older texts from the British Library have been digitised, but are only available through Amazon. The nature of digital archives makes denial easier in the same way that it makes access easier, and makes gatekeeping (eg. paywalls, or tech constraints) even easier. It’s down to the number of layers, and the ease of swapping in another one with a filter.

The enemies of completeness: targeted curation. Almost the greatest enemies of books are librarians.

As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all. Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy. It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself, which I do, vividly, with all kinds of emotions, which I feel strongly as I write, perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them.
But he did not write them. He slighted my life, in his poem. He scanted me, because he only came to know who I was when he was dying. He’s not to blame. It was too late for him to make amends, rethink, complete the half-lines, perfect the poem he thought imperfect. He grieved for that, I know; he grieved for me. Perhaps where he is now, down there across the dark rivers, somebody will tell him that Lavinia grieves for him.
Lavinia, Ursula K LeGuin

Archival preservation only comes in after three steps already:
1. Noticing interesting questions to start with. Only things considered important by generally-male and -white scholars. Cf. McKenna, Butler. Ossian?
2. Choosing data to record, often exemplary data. There’s lots of crunchy theory stuff, both information-science and anthropology/sociology/women’s studies, here.
3. Not throwing the damn stuff away, either to make room for other things or for political reasons. Cf. Alexandria by Lindsay Davis, NASA re: Apollo.

The consequences of loss. There could be hundreds more classic scenes like this, lost to us forever.

STUDENT: Well, all right then. Once Chaerephon asked Socrates whether mozzies hummed through their mouth or through their bum.

STREPSIADES: And what did Socrates say about the mozzies?

STUDENT: He said that the mozzie’s gut is a narrow canal with only a small space for the air to travel through so that, when the mozzie hums, that air travels hard and fast through this canal all the way to its bum, so then, the bumhole being simply a hole attached to the narrow canal, vibrates as the wind is forced through it, see?

STREPSIADES: I see, I see! The mozzie’s bum-pipe is a trombone! Oh, blessed and blessed twice again is he who could penetrate through such a gut-blasting problem! Such a mind would have no worries at all about winning law suits! Imagine having such an intricate knowledge of a mozzie’s bumhole!

Clouds, Aristophanes (tr. Theodoridis)

What we’ve lost: two full-length Bach passions. Nearly all of Sappho’s work, and all of Heraclitus’s. We only know of Eratosthenes’s book On the Measurement of the Earth because Cleomedes summarized it. Chaucer’s Of the Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde. Nearly all of the monastic libraries of England. The play Black Batman of the North, Part II (Chettle & Wilson, April 1598. Presumably there was also a Part I, which we don’t have either). We thought we’d lost Shakespeare’s Cardenio forever, but then Theobald’s Double Falshood was discovered to be a version of Cardenio. We still don’t have his original text.

There’s a hell of a lot of stuff out there, and always more being created. We lose vastly more than we can record anyway.

THOMASINA: But instead, the Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?

SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book that will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We will die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march, so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

Arcadia, Tom Stoppard


  1. Interesting! I wish I could have heard the full thing – touching on archival preservation and lost texts especially so.

    I don’t know if you’ve come across this book at all? It’s not explicitly about what you discuss, but the preservation of the texts is mentioned as is a lot of context. Worth a look if you have some time. And for the Enheduanna poetry!

    Comment by Jenny — April 3, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

  2. This is absolutely wonderful, even as a shorthand version – I’d've loved to hear the full. I have a deep and abiding academic interest in epigraphy and the intersection of writing and magic, so this is particularly absorbing to me….

    Comment by Kate @ Candlemark — April 4, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

  3. And you both missed my Dr Johnson impression, too!

    Jenny – No, I hadn’t, but it sounds fascinating! Makes my archaeologist fingers twitch.

    Kate – oh, yes, the magic of texts, rather than the magic in them. I have an idea trying to unearth itself, about how a lot of the wonder of early texts has been lost by everyone taking it for granted that writing happens, archiving happens, and they’re nothing special.

    Comment by Sam — April 4, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

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