Thursday Lecture: Jan-Just Witkam: "The value of old paper"
(This event has passed)

Apr 30, 2015 5:00pm
Organized by: Netherlands-Flemish Institute Cairo (NVIC)
Venue: Netherlands-Flemish Institute Cairo (NVIC)
Address: 1 Mahmoud Azmi Street, Zamalek
Event Language: English

Paper is one of the great inventions of mankind. How great in fact, is now mostly forgotten. We just take paper for granted. When more than two thousand years ago the Chinese, to whom we owe this invention, first started to produce and use paper, they had been writing already for several thousands of years, but on less flexible and durable materials: bones, bamboo stalks, stone, metals and ceramic. And they were not the only ones: the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations are there to prove it. 

The availability of paper suddenly made it possible to register memories of all sorts and also to do that on a grand scale. With paper so much more became possible, because it is a durable medium that is easy and inexpensive to produce, and it could be easily recycled into new paper. In China itself this led to a hausse in book printing: the earliest dated book preserved was produced in China in the year 868. In the Middle East somehow printing was missed as an agent of change, but in the world of Islam paper is no doubt at the basis of the scientific revolution of the 9th and 10th centuries, and the size of Islamic manuscript culture is astounding by any standard. Finally, book printing as it developed in Western Europe since about the middle of the 15th century has irreversibly shaped our outlook on science and literature. Without paper all this would have been unthinkable. At the same time letters and archives preserve innumerable memories of human relationships, both official and personal.

The approaching end of all this has been announced for the past thirty years, as if it were a sort of millennium bug (‘the end of the book as we know it’). Yet there is a ground of truth in this. Far less durable mediums are increasingly taking over the role of paper, and from a triumphant material it is suddenly becoming something of an endangered species. Paper that since the industrial revolution had become a disposable material, made in seemingly inexhaustible quantities, is nowadays becoming a rare commodity in libraries, archives and museums. Attempts to preserve our archives on paper have, for the moment, miserably failed on a world-wide scale. 

That brings the question of the value of old paper (if it has any) to the foreground. How can we determine this value, and what is the difference between value and price? Or in other words: do we use our memory in order to retain moments of the past, or is memory in fact the ruthless filter by which most of our history is discarded? The speaker will make an attempt to find his way in the labyrinth of opinions that are available and he will use moments of his own life-long love story with paper as a source of inspiration.

Jan Just Witkam (Leiden, 1945) is professor emeritus of Leiden University. Ever since his first visit in 1965 he visits Egypt on a regular basis. He has published extensively, mostly on subjects of Islamic book culture. At present, at the request of the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, he is working on an illustrated catalogue of the Qurʾān manuscripts of the Mamluk era in the National Library in Cairo.

! Attention ! Seats are limited. Doors open at 5:30 and close at 6:15 or earlier when we have reached full capacity.