The Mortality of Paper

What do you do when your life's artifacts are ruined?

This past winter, while my family and I were in the middle of a move from the mountains of North Carolina to the suburbs of Des Moines, we got a call from the insurance agent working for our moving company. With all the cold weather, a water main had broken in the warehouse where our belongings were being stored. Our things had been flooded.

The insurance agent was particularly worried about our mattresses, but my first thought was to our books and our personal archives. We had 30 or 40 boxes of books and papers, accreted through college and graduate school and life. How were they doing? She couldn’t say. But the mattresses: Yes, she was very sorry those had had to be tossed. Didn’t we need new ones? Couldn’t she send us a check right now? What was the replacement value? We had just closed on our new house, but we were still living with our two kids in the basement of a member of my husband’s new church (he’s a pastor in the United Church of Christ). How much the mattresses were worth wasn’t a question we really felt capable of treating as urgent.

Repeated calls back and forth, over the course of the week, and my husband and I were unable to figure out anything about the state of the rest of our stuff, so we decided to go down to the warehouse ourselves. Let everything else be flooded, I thought as we drove over, it'll be okay as long as I still have this one box, the box with all the notes and cards and bits and pieces of my life from my twenties, the years of college and graduate school and marriage and the birth of our daughter. In that box were many of the letters and cards I’d received from my mother and grandmothers, now all dead.

When we got to the warehouse, we found that the damage wasn’t so bad, really. There were several boxes’ worth of books, soaked and freezing, strewn out across tables that had been shifted together out of plywood sheets and sawhorses. Most everything else was fine, or easily repaired or replaced. But of course, that box—the one box—was sodden. It was falling apart; the papers stuck together, ink running, and photos imparting their colors onto the sheets around them. 

I couldn’t look at those papers. We worked our way through the books first, instead. Not salvageable, really, but we could make a record of what was lost. I walked around the makeshift tables in my down coat, tapping bibliographic data into the notes app on my husband’s iPod. Luckily and unluckily, the warehouse was unheated. The cold had caused the water main break in the first place, but it also arrested any further damage to the books and papers. With fumbling fingers, I tapped out authors, titles, sometimes publishers, just enough to identify the text, and where necessary, the edition. We hoped later to make a list with prices, for the insurance people. But so much of the value of these books, for us, was copy specific. What value could I place on the boxed set of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, picked up in high school during one of my early independent forays down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley? What about the special edition of The Scarlet Letter, with its menacing woodcuts, that my husband’s father gave him when he was twelve? Taking the texts alone, these weren’t our favorite novels, but we held these specific copies, and remembered where we were, and who we were, when we first picked them up.

Questions of value became even more acute when I finally turned to the box of papers, invaluable to me, yet worthless to the insurer. As a historian studying the destruction and preservation of papers and manuscripts in 16th- and 17th-century Britain, and as the daughter of an archivist, I've thought a lot about the value of paper, about what gets saved and what doesn't, and why. So much is destroyed, whether in the churn of religious violence (as during the Reformation in Britain) or in the business of everyday life. Paper, then made by boiling and beating linen rags (old underwear, mostly), has a mortal life: Its aging can be hurried or slowed, depending on how it’s treated, and its death can be mourned. It can't be preserved forever. The same goes for the parchment and vellum, made from the scraped and stretched hides of sheep and calves, on which medieval scribes wrote.

Early modern Britain was particularly hostile to the survival of papers and manuscripts; vast swathes of such materials were destroyed. Natural historians and philosophers—people we would call scientists, today—were particularly troubled by the loss of these materials, because at least some of them contained ancient and medieval scientific writings, troves of observations, data, and insights into the workings of the natural world. The destruction began when Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell closed down the Catholic monasteries and expropriated their land. The books were expelled from monastic libraries along with the monks. In the words of the natural historian John Aubrey, recorded in a manuscript he deposited at the Library of the Royal Society of London,  “the Manuscripts flew about like Butterflies.” Through the 17th century, religious and civil violence continued to trouble Britain, and papers and manuscripts were flushed out of college and personal libraries, as well. Only one copy of the medieval epic Beowulf, for example, survived these tumultuous centuries, and that one, now badly charred around the edges, barely made it through a fire in the early 18th century.

Presented by

​Elizabeth Yale

Elizabeth Yale is a science historian and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Iowa Center for the Book.

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