February 11, 2016

Money-pinching House of Lords scraps the vellum


The House of Lords by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson (via Wikipedia Commons)

The House of Lords by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson (via Wikipedia Commons)

According to the Telegraph, the House of Lords just saved the United Kingdom £80,000 (~$116,000) a year.

But how, you ask? By deciding that, starting this April, government legislation will no longer be printed on vellum, which is costly and gross (vellum is just fancy-talk for calfskin). Instead, the nation’s documents will be preserved on simple archive paper, which is much cheaper and less gross.

Critics of the decision—and there are many—note that the more cost efficient paper is not nearly as high quality, surely meaning that the history of the U.K. and its laws will be forgotten in about 200 years, the lifespan of said cheap paper. This is a weak line of argumentation to take, because it can’t possibly be totally true—surely the content of the laws are in someone’s email somewhere, and surely the country won’t just forget everything the second these papers decompose.

Which is to say the outrage is slightly ridiculous. But it is also totally warranted. Yes, it does seem petty to repeatedly cite the lifespans of various weights of different types of paper, but the underlying fear—that by cheapening the paper, the government is cheapening the country, cheapening the future—is understandable.

Conservative MP James Gray, a critic of the Lords’ decision, stated:

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.

He’s right on both counts. The Magna Carta was recorded in 1215 on vellum, and would not be around today had it been printed on sheets of Hammermill A4, and nor would the Doomsday Book of 1086. Those documents would have vanished in 1415 and 1286 respectively, if they had been printed on the proposed new paper.

Another critic, Paul Wright (it’s worth mentioning, that Mr. Wright is Britain’s remaining maker of vellum) told Telegraph’s Laura Hughes:

What they have decided is that future generations will be denied the privilege of touching history and no man has the right to make that decision.

And that makes sense. And while I don’t know how many children actually touch “history” (understood here as government documents), it is pretty amazing to see very old documents in national museums that say very old, sometimes good things.

And another critic, Labour MP Sharon Hodgson, declared:

This is wrong on so many levels that they can just do this without debate or consultation and when from all accounts the figures they’ve come up with are dodgy at best. If history doesn’t matter then why are we trying to save this building? Tradition and history does matter.”

But it seems the Lords can indeed make this decision without external approval—a 19th century ruling states that the House of Lords decides how the Parliament’s decisions are recorded.

A spokesperson for the House defended the Lords’ position, stating, “We took the view a long time ago that we wanted this to stop and as far as we are concerned the decision has been made. This will save an expected £80,000 a year and this will is part of a more general process.” The spokesperson added: “our archival paper has a life span of 500 years.”



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.