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May 6

Fleeting Wonders: A Farewell to Vellum

The Magna Carta, printed on vellum in 1215 and held in the British Library.

The Magna Carta, printed on vellum in 1215 and held in the British Library. (Photo: British Library/WikiCommons Public Domain)

After over 700 years, Parliament has decided to part ways with one of its more unique office supplies: vellum.

Vellum, which is essentially thinly-stretched calfskin, has been Parliament’s stationery of choice since it first convened in 1264. The material is waterproof, doesn’t degrade, and can be handled without gloves. All Acts of Parliament are printed on it, as are many other documents meant to stand the test of time—the Magna Carta, early treatises and maps, and one quarter of the first run of Gutenberg Bibles.

But it’s also expensive, bulky, and resource-intensive. One entire calfskin only makes three or four pages of vellum. Switching to archival paper will save the government about 80,000 pounds ($116,000) annually, says the House of Lords.

A vellum map from 1533.

A vellum map from 1533. (Photo: Nationaal Archief/WikiCommons Public Domain)

The decision is contentious. Pro-vellum legislators and commentators have pointed out that proposed alternatives lack the time-tested durability of calfskin. Archival paper lasts about 250 years, and there’s no telling what will happen to the many current forms of digital preservation.

“I can’t see why, when there’s something that exists, that is so sturdy and will last for centuries, that we would want to scrap that in favor of using parchment paper,” parliament member Sarah Hodgson told Public Radio International. House of Commons member James Gray drew an unflattering comparison to floppy disks. The public has also joined in via a Twitter hashtag: #SaveVellum.

The switch is set for April 1st, but according to the New York Times, several of its opponents have vowed to “fight for a debate on vellum.” Keep an eye out for the results–and where they get written down.

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to [email protected].