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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Where have All the Scrolls Gone?

Have you been spending time lately thinking of just the right words to put in that 144 character tweet? Have you wondered is this photograph good enough before posting to Instagram?  Have you been wondering what important people will think of your blogs?

Tang Dynasty Scroll
The formats have changed, but how we interact, appear, or present ourselves to others has always been a part of society.  But how did people present thoughts, ideas, etc. to one another before the advent of computers?  Well, of course, there were letters.  There were cards.  Handwriting and drawing were also a huge factor when few people had cameras (and definitely not in your phone). 

People had to figure out ways to leave a good impression with different types of material.  Many people chose to create letters, but not just any letters.  They chose to make the letter a continuous and often decorous scroll.  This made for a unique and memorable exchange of ideas.

Scrolls date back as far as ancient Egypt and were the first editable record keeping texts.  They were great because they were flexible and could be long unlike their cousin, the clay tablet. This communication technology lasted until the Romans created the codex, or bound book, around the first century A.D.  Regardless, scrolls were respected and used more by the Romans well into their civilization. 
Qing Dynasty Handscroll

So imagine carrying around scrolls instead of phones or e-readers.  And now imagine you would only be carrying one around if you were someone who could read, like an official. So no devices that fit in your pocket.  And no instant access to all the information you want.

A shift from the scroll started to happen in the first century A.D. The adoption of the codex among early Christians is as explainable as the attraction of modern nerdy groups to cyberspace. With both groups of people there has been a need for a reading and communication mode suited to construct a society of unconventional dispersed individuals.  There was also a rising working class with increased a need for notebooks or account books.

Codex Washingtonensis
 A codex consists of folded pieces of vellum, papyrus, or paper that are then bound on one end so that the “pages” can be flipped through.  The continuous scroll stayed in use, but quickly lost ground to this new and easier to handle reading format.  Scrolls could be ten meters long, it was much easier to flip through folded pages of a codex than to have to unroll six meters of scroll to get to the passage you wanted! Random access points may seem like a small thing, but they changed the way people processed information.  The next big change for books would come with the movable type of Guttenberg.

A Group of Geese

 The use of scrolls never completely disappeared, but moved to the background.  Scrolls are still used for ceremonial texts or decoration, especially in Asian and Islamic cultures.  These scrolls were often elaborately decorated with calligraphic writing that included the use of embossing and pigments.  These cultures also created hanging art scrolls.
A scroll letter to Freer from Harada.

Scrolls are still occasionally used in this day and age.  In the early 20th century it was used as part of nice gifts or thank you cards between people. It was also used famously by Jack Kerouac to write his novel On the Road.  Kerouac said that he hated to stop typing to put paper in the typewriter so he taped the papers together so he did not have to interrupt his creativity.  In addition, the jargon “to scroll” or “scrolling” used on computers and internet dates back to scrolls.  So in some ways, scrolls have never gone away.

For more information on Kerouac's On the Road Scroll please see watch this video.

Lara Amrod, Archivist


The Book: The Life Story of a Technology by Nicole Howard. John Hopkins University Press, 2009.

From Scroll to Screen by Lev Grossman.  New York Times, September 2, 2011.

Great Evolution of Books by Ken Liu.  PowellBooks.Blog March 10, 2016

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