Keeping record

Books in a medieval chained library – a metaphor of imprisonment but also permanence. Writing not only a form of incarceration but also one of preservation.

The two things that have revolutionised the way we keep records of past events, the primary sources of history and history-writing, are storage and duplication. Making copies and keeping them safe.

Keeping a record of history requires both. But neither is a natural human response.

In pre-literate societies, recording happens orally. When something of note happens, various mechanisms activate in order to record the occurrance in the live human memory. Culture itself has the duplicatory effect of effecting storage through repetition. Recording works through song, stories, myths, and things like that. Society itself is a recording device and culture the result of that long recording session.

The advent of the written record was an extension of the mechanism of recording in oral cultures. Storage no longer happened within society and its members, but outside of it, on tangible support, like stone, wood, papyrus, parchment, etc. Duplication no longer depended on repetition within society, but it was still essential, due to the weakness and impermanence of writing. An unrepeated tale is quickly forgotten. An unduplicated document is likely to fade away.

But even duplication can’t beat entropic speed without the support of storage. Keeping a record means keeping it safe, and libraries were humanity’s solution against dissolution. Remembering in the age of writing is making sure that the records, whose etymology centres of the very idea of recalling, recordor, I remember – are available for retrieval. Once the principle of outsourced storage had been discovered, extraction was just a matter of time. Arranging, sorting, cataloguing were inevitable developments of a technology which we now take for granted, not realising its fundamental role in the creation of our modern, hyperliterate world.

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