Updates, or why books are better

Technology and software updates are now a fact of life. But they are still a supreme annoyance when major changes are made. For example, I have an I-Pad and an OS update was recently issued for it that made some major changes in both the user interface and in some of the permanent apps. I hate the new way News is set up, and it’s so much less customizable and user friendly. The worst part though is that if you go into the app store, there’s no option to review it. It’s like Apple did this on purpose, knowing it would upset people but not caring. There was no need for such extensive revisions; I liked the app. But now I can’t see everything list chronologically the way I could before, and if I want to see all the listings from a favorite publication, I can’t just look for that; I have to look through all of the articles for the general subject category, and they’re no longer in clear chronological order.

I understand the need to update things, and I know change can be irritating. With the same system update I also had to relearn how to convert a Pages file, but it was easy enough to figure out. Pages itself remains much the same in terms of function and interface. This kind of thing I am accepting of. Complete overhauls that change things for the worse and that give no outlet for venting, not so much.

I do have a relevant point here, not just a rant against the new I-Pad OS. With technology, these problems are inevitable; the case as much with innovations in actual books is different. As funny as it is, I doubt here is much realism in the following link to a video concerning medieval tech support: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ

When new structures were added to books, they did not change the entire interface or functionality of the object. Instead, often “updates” were added to help with use, including indices, TOC, text titles, glosses, or accesus (a technical term that basically means an abstract). The following images are from British Library Additional MS 11859, a 15th century book containing the Gospels:


The penciled-in addition in the upper margin and the note on the outer R margin do not alter the main interface, but adds further information.



This table of contents was added much later (you can tell by the handwriting as well as the fact that it’s in pencil), but does not interfere with the original function or user interface. Instead it provides optional extra information.

You had the option of customizing a book as you chose. For example, BL Add. MS 22283 (possibly my favorite book in the BL):


Not only does this book have decoration, it also has some added notes (you can see in the upper R corner of this page).

Another adaptation was to have the original text surrounded by professional scholarly commentary as in Add MS 11727, Thucydides’ Historiae with scholia by Marcellinus:


You could even leave feedback for posterity concerning something that happened to the page, for good or bad. For example, in Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249:

Caption: Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

The finger pointing to the smudge and the note explain what happened, are a fifteenth century version of a feedback comment (namely the monk/scribe’s annoyance at how a cat had altered his work in progress).

Such innovations were usually added alongside what was already present.  Major changes, such as from scroll to codex, or from parchment to paper, happened gradually, and rarely were total. An exception could be when the printing press was introduced, as to my knowledge there would not be a good way to reproduce a scroll-style text using the mechanism, although you probably could print a series of pages and the attach them in scroll form?

Whether or not the technology would make scrolls possible, the codex represents an improved interface simply because it makes for more convenient back and forth between locations in the text. Even if you preferred the scroll form, the change from scroll to codex was gradual, like the change-over from VCR to DVDs. VCRs were still being made until 2016, decades after the introduction of the DVD, so if you had a preference for the older technology, you had a long while to make the change. It wasn’t forced upon you suddenly.

A note on the images: I have included the links to the original sources, though not always the exact page, all of which all publicly available online.