Ecologies of Data Part I: Link Rot & the Medieval Archive

Link Rot & the Medieval Archive

Archival Practice and the Keeping of Food in Isidore’s Etymologies

This is the Part I of Ecologies of Data, a series that explores the ecologies of data and knowledge-making in the Anthropocene. 

The image you are seeing is what appears when you click on any of the search results for “climate change” on the U.S. Department of State’s website. The apologetic “We’re sorry, that page can’t be found”——technically speaking a “404” or “Not Found” error message——results when hyperlinks point to material that is no longer available, either because it has been deleted, overwritten, or moved. The degradation of a hyperlink’s ability to retrieve the content it points to is commonly known as “link rot,” “URL decay,” or “link death,” and it is the scourge of web archivists.

What is striking about this phenomenon, for a student of environmental language, is the use of vivid organic analogies——rot, decay, and death——to describe the most ephemeral form of digital degradation imaginable. Because hyperlinks do not exist as such in the material world, how can they be said to “decay”? Why speak of code as though it were flesh? What this language reveals, I think, is the extent to which we conceive of the vast, rhizomatic archive known as the Internet as an organism, or as an intricate system of organisms: an ecosystem, in other words.

DataRefuge is thus a curious sort of archive, one that bridges the space between the digital and the material, between the grammars of code and the patterns of nature. Can an ecological approach to data conservation help us to conceive, manage, and replicate this work?

DataRefuge is a public, collaborative effort dedicated to mitigating the potentially devastating effects of link rot to sites and documents related to climate and environmental data on federal agency websites. DataRefuge is, first of all, a data conservation project, but the massive quantities of information it seeks to preserve indexes real-world environments and communities, many of which are themselves under threat of erasure——a condition that can only worsen if the public is unable to access the record of that threat. DataRefuge is thus a curious sort of archive, one that bridges the space between the digital and the material, between the grammars of code and the patterns of nature. Can an ecological approach to data conservation help us to conceive, manage, and replicate this work?

The concept of the archive as we understand it today emerges from early medieval conservation practices developed in European monasteries, whose architectures and rituals brought the worlds of agricultural and textual practice into everyday contact. One of the most important surviving records of these practices is the early encyclopedia known variously as the Origins or Etymologies, compiled in Latin by Isidore, Bishop of Seville, in the first decades of the seventh century. The language that Isidore employs to describe the anatomy of books, their production, and their stewardship prefigures the organic metaphors that present-day coders, archivists, and hackers use to bemoan the contingencies of storage and retrieval on the Internet. Does the language that the Etymologies employs to describe the care of books also imply an ethic of conservation? In other words, does Isidore’s description of the medieval archive and its contents in organic terms suggest——like the discussion of “link rot” on federal websites——an ecological conceptualization of that space and its practices?

Assembling the Stuff of the Archive

Questions of preservation and ethics tend not to receive much attention in histories of medieval libraries or in studies on medieval codicology. Instead they focus, in the case of library histories, on the role of monastic scriptoria in the preservation of ideas. That is, as centers for “cultural” rather than material preservation, or, in the case of codicology, on the development and dissemination of book architectures. The rare description of the material preservation of books in monastic libraries tends to be negative.

James Westfall Thompson, in a classic study on the medieval library, writes that while “it is true that the only extant manuscripts of many important books have come to us through the monastic libraries, [...] it is equally true their preservation was often due to neglect and mere chance as it was to conscious intention” (30). In this view, the medieval scriptorium was generally not a place where the production and preservation of books was valued as an ethical activity in its own right; it was simply a way to keep the monks distracted. The scribal work that produced palimpsests——pages on which multiple, overlapping instances of inscription are visible——cannot be conceived in any way as a conservation practice, but simply as the byproduct of rote copying.

Nawaz letter with seal, palimpsest. Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania LJS 489. 

Nawaz letter with seal, palimpsest. Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania LJS 489. 

Thompson argues that it was “the occupation of writing, and not what was written, that was valued,” and concludes that despite “noble exceptions, the medieval scriptorium was more often a treadmill of meaningless labor than it was a shrine where the expiring flame of literary culture was sedulously preserved” (31). But this gray, quasi-industrial image of a scriptorium crowded with bored monks occupied with “meaningless labor” does not fit with what we now know about how the materials of writing were produced. In fact, for this work to be empty of meaning would imply a radical break with an intricate and highly meaningful process through which the materials of writing were brought forth from the world of nature into the world of culture.

Rosamond McKitterick offers some clues into the material conditions of book production. Monastic scribes, she says, “made their own ink, largely based on oak gall apples though sometimes carbon based (mixed with vinegar), and pens made from either goose feathers or the common reed, Phragmites communis (found in marshlands or on the river banks all over Europe)” (14–15). Oak gall ink, also known as iron gall ink, was the principal writing ink in medieval and early modern Europe. It was prepared by combining iron sulfate with tannic acid extracted from oak galls by fermentation, a process requiring a delicate chemistry to create an ink with a relatively neutral pH McKitterick’s description of the production of parchment is equally vivid:

The skins, best treated when they are fresh, were soaked in a lime solution to loosen the fat and hair or wool. They were squeezed, scraped down and washed and stretched on a frame to dry. Once dry they would be scraped to the requisite thinness with a very sharp half-moon-shaped implement. (13)

In the image of the archive that McKitterick paints here, a medieval scribe or archivist intimately familiar with the material processes by which plant and animal bodies are manipulated and preserved in order to become books would most likely associate codicology with ecology, thus linking the preservation of their manuscripts with the preservation of food, activities for which European monks would, in subsequent centuries, come to acquire considerable distinction. The multidisciplinary expertise embodied by the medieval scribe suggests that, in our own moment, the strongest and most effective environmental data conservation projects are those that intertwine disparate practices and technologies for collecting, organizing, and deploying information, and that engage, through narrative forms, not only data but the lives and spaces that data represents. A resilient data refuge is built not only on datasets, but on the stories we build around them.

Securing the Archive

The Etymologies does not register the definition for archive that is most familiar to us, namely, “a place in which public records or other important historic documents are kept” (“archive”). One might expect to find a definition for the archive in the section on “Buildings and Fields,” where Isidore describes various architectural structures, including the forum, the labyrinth, and the lighthouse, or among the descriptions of “Repositories,” which include treasuries, armories, and pantries. Instead, the term appears in a chapter on “Provisions and Various Implements,” among definitions for foodstuffs, tableware, water vessels, and other storage containers: “A strongbox (arca) is so called because it prevents (arcere) and prohibits seeing inside. From this term also derive ‘archives’ (arcivum, i.e. archivum) and ‘mystery’ (arcanum), that is, a secret, from which other people are ‘fended off’ (arcere)” (401).

Liber ethimologiarum. Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania LJS 184. 

Liber ethimologiarum. Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania LJS 184. 

In the Etymologies, the archive is most closely associated not with public space but with private things. Curiously, the root word, arca, appears at one other point, this time associated with topography: “An arca (i.e. a quadrangular landmark) is so named from the term ‘ward off’ (arcere), for it guards the boundaries of a field and prohibits anyone from approaching” (315).

Judging by context alone, the strongest associations to the idea of the archive in the Etymologies is not with manuscripts and the circulation of ideas but with money pouches, hand baskets, and lock boxes——objects intended to circulate while keeping their contents hidden from view. The Etymologies describes eight kinds of repository: sacraria, donaria, treasuries, cabinets, libraries, storerooms, pantries, and storehouses. The list descends from most to least sacred——from holy relics to harvested crops——distinguishing between various forms of keeping so that a promptuarium, or storeroom, is the place from which foods are brought out, while a cellarium, or pantry, is the place to which leftovers return. The bibliotheca——literally a “book repository”——appears in the very center of the list, just before the repositories for foodstuffs and kitchenware, thus operating as a bridge between the transcendent and the telluric.

Libraries do get their own section, in “Books and Ecclesiastical Offices,” but the description is no more detailed than in the section on repositories. Isidore provides a brief history of the library, yet does not describe either its social function or its architecture. More illuminating is his entry, several pages later, for the terminology of books.

A book is called a codex,” he says, “by way of metaphor from the trunks (codex) of trees or vines, as if it were a wooden stock (caudex, i.e. an older form of the word codex), because it contains in itself a multitude of books [multitudinem librorum], as it were of branches. [...] Liber is the inner membrane of bark, which clings to the wood. [...] Whence what we write on is called a book (liber) because before the use of papyrus sheets or parchment, scrolls were made—that is, joined together—from the inner bark of trees. Whence those who write are called copyists (librarius) after the bark of trees. (142)

In this entry, the polysemy of the phrase multitudinem librorum——at once a “multitude of books” and “many layers of bark”——suggests that the structure of the book recapitulates the structure of a tree. Arborum (trees) and librorum (books) share more than a common materiality——wood pulp——they share a common anatomy. The word liber creates slippage here between a discussion of biological structures and cultural artifacts, so that when we encounter the definition of the library——“Bibliotheca est locus ubi reponuntur libri; βίβλος enim Graece liber, θήκη repostorium dicitur” (Book XV; chap. 5, par. 5)——it is not immediately clear that what is being described are books and not the membranes of trees, an ambiguity reinforced by the fact that the library does not hold a privileged place among repositories, sandwiched as it is between cabinets and pantries.

A data refuge is not just a form of intellectual resistance against the forces of ignorance and deceit, not just an ethic of preservation for the life’s work of countless scientists, public servants, and citizen data collectors. It is a wager upon a future world, one in which our survival will quite literally depend on the things that, together, we are working to put by.

The medieval idea of a manuscript repository was conceptually much closer to a granary than a treasury, and the practice of manuscript preservation would be imagined in ways resembling food preservation. This is only natural, since manuscripts were composed, top to bottom, inside and out, of preserved plant and animal products harvested by the same monks who inscribed and bound them. An ecological data conservation practice treats information with the same attention to continuity, integrity, and provenance as one would to food. A data refuge is not just a form of intellectual resistance against the forces of ignorance and deceit, not just an ethic of preservation for the life’s work of countless scientists, public servants, and citizen data collectors. It is a wager upon a future world, one in which our survival will quite literally depend on the things that, together, we are working to put by.

Archiving as Ecology

How did medieval archivists and scribes conceive of their work and the space in which this work took place? While the Etymologies does not provide a definitive answer to this question——it explicitly mentions archivists or a preservation ethic——it does provide a doorway for reconsidering, and perhaps reformulating, the idea of the medieval scriptorium, library, and archive.

Some version of what we would call ecology has always informed the practice of making and keeping books, just as it informs the contingencies of the archival and conservation work of coders today. In this context, the language that books received from the natural world——codex, folio, anthology, and so on——or that programmers adapted from biology——rot, decay, death——does not operate by analogy alone. Rather, it registers a different form of correspondence altogether, between the work of culture and the work of nature.

 

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Steve Vásquez Dolph is a PhD Candidate in Hispanic & Portuguese Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where his research looks at early modern Iberian and transatlantic literature and human ecology. He is the 2016-17 Brizdle-Shoenberg Fellow in the History of Material Texts and co-founder of the Early Modern Iberia (EMI) Study Group. His current project, Third Nature, examines representations of ecological crisis in Renaissance Spain, with a focus on landscapes and ethics in the pastoral literature of the early 17th century. Follow him @stevedolph

 

Works Cited

“Archive, N.” OED Online Dec. 2014. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.

Isidore of Seville. Etymologiarum Siue Originum Libri XX. Database. BPREPOLiS. N.p., 2014. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.

---. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Ed. Stephen A. Barney et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.

McKitterick, Rosamond. “Books and Sciences Before Print.” Books and the Sciences in History. Ed. Marina Frasca-Spada and Nicholas Jardine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 13–34. Print.

Nawaz Letter with Seal. Nd. UPenn LJS 489.

Thompson, James Westfall. The Medieval Library. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1939. Print.