Immortal prose: how to preserve a writer’s work by James Fergusson

James Fergusson

Filed under: Non-fiction

As the technology of publishing changes, what is the best way to preserve a writer's work for posterity? James Fergusson investigates.

‘Exegi monumentum aere perennius,’ wrote Horace.  ‘I have built a monument longer-lasting than bronze.’  His poems were published in 23 BC – copied by hand on papyrus rolls.  If he were writing today, what medium would he choose?  How could he ensure the survival of his work for 500 years, let alone 2,000?  In the age of the e-book, the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle, would he be better not committing to traditional media at all?  Nicolas Barker, former head of conservation at the British Library, is in no doubt of the answer.  He says there is no beating ‘the old-fashioned, well-made book’.

Papyrus had a good run.  The Egyptians started using it in 3000 BC – but the writings that survive from then are on clay tablets, cuneiform inscriptions from Babylon.  The 1400 BC inscriptions at Knossos in Linear B, the precursor of the Greek alphabet, were on clay, as was the text of The Epic of Gilgamesh found in the royal library of seventh-century BC Nineveh.  The second-century BC Rosetta Stone is made of the granite-like rock granodiorite – but, says Barker, ‘Who would want to walk to and round a granite post to read it?’  You could roll papyrus up and take it home.  The great library at Alexandria was said to comprise 700,000 papyrus scrolls – all now gone.  But the dry sands of Egypt have preserved a number of papyri from the Hellenistic period; and the most famous of all papyrus troves, the Dead Sea Scrolls dating back to the second century BC, were treated with cedar oil before being wrapped in linen and sealed in pottery jars.

Vellum, made of animal skin, began to usurp papyrus even in Roman times.  It endured better in wetter climates and became the material of choice for medieval copyists.  The fourth-century AD Codex Sinaiticus, containing the oldest complete copy of the New Testament, is on vellum, as is the 1086Domesday Book.  Acts of Parliament are still, astonishingly, printed on vellum, supplied by William Cowley, a firm in Newport Pagnell.  When in 2002 Robin Cook MP suggested it was time to end the practice, there was an outcry.  ‘Vellum has been proved to last indefinitely,’ asserted Wim Visscher of Cowley’s.  ‘That’s the nub of the matter.’

The College of Arms sources the vellum for its grants of arms from Cowley’s, reports P.L. Dickinson, Richmond Herald, but uses a blue laid ledger paper, a Whatman paper, for its ordinary records – paper may be less tough, says Barker, but it is equally durable.  Whatman paper, milled by the Whatmans from the early 18th century, was favoured by artists such as Gainsborough and Turner.  It was also, boasts the modern firm of Whatman (which specialises in papers for scientific and medical purposes), used by Napoleon for his will, Queen Victoria for her letters and Stalin for his Five-Year Plans.

When the first printed book, the Gutenberg Bible, was issued in 1454-55, some copies came on vellum and some on paper.  Printing was born perfect: incunabula, books printed before 1501, look good and last; they are mechanical versions of the long-established copyist’s art.  Barker suggests that the modern Horace print his book in an edition of 500 copies (not too many, not too few), ‘on pure rag paper’, plus ten on vellum, ‘with printed certificate of limitation’.  You may have to make your own rag paper, he says; the virtues of ‘acid-free’ paper are quite unproven.  ‘Only pure cotton or linen rags make pure cellulose, the element that survives soaking and resists fire.’  And the books should be hand-bound for durability.

After 500 years most incunables seem, internally at least, as fresh as when they were first minted.  But physical sheen and robustness are no guarantee of survival.  There are Darwinian elements, too, writers may be relieved to hear, and there is luck.  Sophocles wrote 123 plays, of which only seven exist complete.  What happened to Aeschylus’s Bacchae?  Where, nearer our own time, is Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Won?  Some Latin authors survive in only a single manuscript.  What Horace proves is that there is more to staying power than fine printing and rag paper, though they help.  He lasted because he was always popular; he was a modern classic in schools only 100 years after his death and was copied and recopied down the years.

The problem with new media is that their life is so short.  Unless your work is constantly copied into new formats, and recopied as these are reborn, it may become suddenly inaccessible.  Archivists struggle already to unlock computer programs from the 1970s.  Andrew Motion, supporting a recent British Library appeal for writers to preserve their texts and e-mails, revealed the dilemma at the heart of all e-preservation schemes.  ‘Anything [in my e-mail] that looks at all interesting,’ he told John Humphrys without embarrassment, ‘I print out and keep in a box.’

In 1938, the expression ‘time capsule’ was coined to describe Westinghouse’s exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, a copper, chrome and silver alloy bullet seven and a half feet long that was buried 50 feet below Flushing Meadow, with the intention that it should stay there for 5,000 years.  Included with other topical paraphernalia was a traditionally made book, The Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy, nattily printed in Goudy type with messages to the future from Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein.  The planting of elaborate time capsules became an international habit, and even the subject of a book – William E. Jarvis’s absorbing Time Capsules: A Cultural History (McFarland, 2003).

Jarvis ponders on the nature of what he calls the ‘magical medium’.  His advice for those aiming for a trouble-free 6939 is to invest in ‘archival grade silver gelatin microfilm stock’ – carefully stored – or, possibly, ‘a new micro-etching process onto silicon discs’.  In other words we should put our trust in metal.  Does silver rate above bronze?  I wonder what Horace would say to that.