Instead of Paperless, UK Tries to Go Vellumless

4 min read
  • Intelligent Data Capture

There’s days when it can be pretty frustrating trying to convince your coworkers to take the steps necessary to go to a paperless office. But take heart: It looks like it’s even harder trying to go to a vellumless office.

The British Parliament originally voted in February to stop its traditional (since 1497) practice of printing its laws on vellum, planning instead to print them starting in April on archival paper. Part of the issue was an argument over who got to make the decision. The House of Lords voted in 1999 to stop the use of vellum, but the proposal was defeated in the House of Commons, Bamzi Banchiri write in the Christian Science Monitor.

In January, citing a 19th-century ruling decreeing that the House of Lords was entitled to decide how Parliament’s legislation is recorded, the chairman of a House of Commons committee affirmed that the House of Lords had the authority to make the switch, Dan Bilefsky writes in the New York Times. But it has since backpedaled and said it will continue the centuries-old tradition of printing on vellum after all.

When it comes to going vellumless, the first challenge is explain what material Parliament is actually using. Some articles call it vellum, some parchment, and some “vellum parchment.” As it turns out, parchment is a general term for an animal skin, usually calf, goat or sheep, which has been prepared for writing or printing, explains the Valley News in an editorial. Vellum refers specifically to parchment made from calfskin, and that’s what Parliament uses. There is, in fact, only one remaining vellum supplier in the U.K.: William Cowley, which was founded in 1870. On February 9, the vellum debate started as the House of Commons learned the venerable company had received 30 days’ notice that its services would no longer be needed.

“Using animal skin to painstakingly record and preserve laws was hardly efficient, given, among other things, that it is more unwieldy and difficult to store than paper,” writes Dan Bilefsky in the New York Times.

Whatever you call it, the calfskin material is undoubtedly durable; documents written on the material have survived for thousands of years. But it’s pricey. The House of Lords estimated that by switching to archival paper, it could save £80,000 (about $115,000) a year.

But it’s the durability that led to the concern. Vellum reportedly lasts for 5,000 years, while archival papers last for just 200 years, writes Laura Hughes in the Telegraph. “We would not have the Magna Carta, we would not have the Doomsday Book and we would not have most of the historic documents of English history if it were not for the fact they were printed on vellum,” one member of Parliament told the Telegraph.

Or, as Paul Wright, general manager of William Cowley, put it in the New York Times, “If early civilizations hadn’t used vellum, our understanding of history would be diddly-squat!”

The benefits of digital

Needless to say, we aren’t the only ones asking why Parliament doesn’t just migrate to electronic documents. ”Truly representing the context and history in which these records were made require them to be kept in a digital format,” Sharon McMeekin, of the Digital Preservation Coalition, an advocacy and advice group for digital recordkeeping, tells Chris Stokel-Walker of the BBC. “It’s more representative of the technologies and communication methods used today.”

Not surprisingly, an organization that’s worried that archival paper isn’t durable enough is also concerned about the viability of electronic documents. But properly stored, electronic documents are also durable, Stokel-Walker writes. “Just as preserving a physical archive requires careful consideration of temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure to prevent paper from turning brittle and breaking, so digital archives need to be tended to,” he notes. “Backup copies are continuously made, and placed in different locations. Checksums, a process to make sure errors have not wormed their way into files, are run weekly.”

This type of records management strategy is vital to the life cycle of information. At an organizational level, records management governs how information is created, stored, shared, tracked and protected. Electronic records management (ERM) software simplifies the application of this strategy to both electronic and physical documents, helping to manage the life cycle of records without interfering with business. It also can help make records more accessible and secure.

In fact, for historians, electronic documents offer an advantage by being able to see more of the process in creating a work, not just for laws, but even for authors like Ben Franklin, Einstein and Mark Twain. “Metadata associated with electronic files can give an insight into the messy creation of a work, rather than a polished final document,” he adds. “It’s sometimes possible to view how long someone spent typing up a record, and even to see what they changed between drafts.”

But in the meantime, Parliament has caved. “Matthew Hancock, a Minister in the Cabinet Office, has recently announced that the Government will find the necessary additional funds to continue providing vellum for laws to be printed on,” writes the Western Daily Press.

If your organization is looking to move from paper – or even vellum – records to electronic, learn more about records management software in a complimentary copy of The Ultimate Guide to Records Management.

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