The Age of Erasable Books

Many scholars followed Mai, and now palimpsest studies have become a popular field. Projects such as the Archimedes palimpsest project use digital imaging in order to see text written by Archimedes that was written over by Byzantine monks. The Sinai Palimpsest Project uses similar techniques to help us understand the early Christian world.

In a way that seems fittingly meta, the palimpsest as a format has taken on a new meeting from what it once was. Originally, it was just a physical document which had been erased and written over. Now, with digital media and technology, it has come to mean, particularly among media theorists, any text which has multiple layers. In other words, a web page which has multiple hyperlinks or a database which allows a user to filter results and create multiple meanings is a “palimpsest” in modern usage.

Palimpsests are now characterized by duality—the hidden/erased text and the exposed/overwritten text—and fundamentally concerned with it. By recovering what had been erased, scholars are revealing something that was meant to be deleted, thereby revealing something about the people and the societies that created these works. Palimpsests help us understand how the study of technology reflects the technology itself.

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To make a kind of loose analogy between a palimpsest and modern technology, computers often use a codec, or program that transfers information from one format into another, and a codec often loses content when moving between formats. In a way, palimpsests are a kind of codec. Palimpsests are a method that medieval programmers (monks) used to move content from one format (a copy of a book) into a blank page which they used to write a new book. Like a codec, however, information is lost when moving between formats. Once a palimpsest was scraped, though, it became difficult to recover the information that had been erased. Similarly, once a codec transfers video content from a live presentation into a video, important information may be lost and difficult to get back.

Ultimately, the technology itself—whether it is a palimpsest or a codec—reflects the value society places on certain kinds of information.

So a medieval monk, who was probably more interested in the theology of St. Augustine than in the works of Cicero, could easily eliminate what he saw as unimportant and replace it with some text that was more valuable. By the 19th century, when Mai was doing his research, there was much more interest in classical works, many of which had been lost, than in medieval works, most of which had been preserved. So, Mai saw no problem in using acid to destroy a medieval piece of parchment to recover the more important, ancient Roman, work underneath it. Fortunately, in modern times, it has become possible to recover these ancient texts without destroying what is above.

Different societies and their technologies reflect the values of their eras. And it’s easy to see how these values are realized. Palimpsests valued medieval theology over classical learning, and codecs might value easy-transfer over quality of an image. To a student of technological history, the value is in what has been lost.

In the same way that Mai tried to discover what was erased, no doubt historians of the future will do the same. So, the questions we should ask ourselves today: What information are we devaluing now? And what are the ramifications for the future? The answers will be reflected not only on the technology that we create, but on the learning we might hope to leave behind.

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Shawn Martin is an informationist, historian, and teacher based in Philadelphia.

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