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British Parliament Ditches Parchment for Paper

But the debate between traditionalists and modernists isn’t over

These parchment rolls at the Parliamentary Archives contain the Acts of the British parliament. (JvL - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

Back in the day, scribes turned to parchment paper when they had an important document or letter to write. But in the 21st century, the thought of using expensive animal skins for significant documents seems a bit quaint, and the British government recently tussled over whether to ditch it altogether and switched to paper for everything but the cover of acts. Now, reports Jenny Gross for the Wall Street Journal, debates over which is the right material have flamed up again.

If it seems like a frivolous argument, think again: It’s a matter of archaeological and ideological significance. Gross explains that vellum, a parchment made from calf skin, which costs the equivalent of $45 per sheet, is at once exponentially more expensive and more durable than paper. The cost is why the centuries-old custom of recording laws on it has come to an end in favor of archival paper, the Telegraph reports. However, those wanting to keep with tradition aren't going quietly.

Gross notes that given the UK’s plan to transfer thousands of European laws to its own books, the question is again rearing its papery head. Switching out parchment for paper circumvents centuries of practice and raises questions about the future durability of key pieces of legislature. Everything from the Magna Carta to the U.S. Constitution was written on parchment, and in the United States, parchment is still used for enrolled bills, which are then passed on to the President. However, the parchment is artificial and made of plant-based fibers.

Vellum has been used for important documents since as early as the sixth century B.C.E. The Worcester Cathedral Library notes that it is the earliest type of writing material known to be used in the British Isles.

But perhaps tradition isn’t the best argument for sticking with parchment. Though documents made with the material has managed to survive everything from caves to fires, parchment still has its downsides. As the British Library reports, it’s very vulnerable to changes in humidity and can lose its structural integrity if it gets too wet. And though archivists are always learning more about how to conserve it, there’s no such thing as a perfect archival strategy. Then again, that argument could also be used against the use of any medium, like paper or digital documents.

Parting with parchment isn’t the only way the British Parliament is bucking tradition these days. As Smithsonian.com reported earlier this year, Parliament recently abandoned its wigs as part of a years-long crawl toward modernization. Which of Britain’s traditions will go next? That’s anyone’s guess, but one thing's for sure—debates between modernists and traditionalists promise to be more eternal than whatever material they're recorded on.

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