Pet Book Report #10: Scribes and Software
I wrote already about the digitization of the Dragon Prayer Book in my fourth pet book report, so in this report I will be focusing on the creation of manuscripts and the creation of software, as well as the role of the “coder” and the role of the scribe. In “Software, It’s a Thing,” Matthew Kirschenbaum asks: “What does it mean to think of software as a made thing, a wrought human artifact to be preserved, and not just as an intangible, ephemeral trellis of code?” As an intangible thing, software creation has not been well documented, in contrast to the creation of vellum and vellum manuscripts, which has been documented, even in the manuscripts themselves. The process of creating vellum is very visual, which may be why it was documented more frequently (often with artwork) than software creation has been (see image 1).
In his article, Kirschenbaum also discusses “Software as background,” the idea that software can be seen in the background of many popular shows and that screen grabs of these shows can provide a visual of that software (as well as a software archive). In image 1, the making and selling of parchment serves as a background (or perhaps foreground) image to the text, similar to the images of software in the background of television shows. But here, the methods and materials of bookmaking are displayed and illuminated, and what seems to be the parchment maker has a halo around his head. While software in the background serves as a sort of prop, this illumination seems to be a conscious decision to preserve the history of bookmaking.
Kirschenbaum also asks: “Does ‘code’ have authors? Is software “written” the way we write a book?” Though I’m not especially familiar with code, it seems that those who write it are closer to authors than scribes are, because they are able to put more of themselves into their work. Still, at this time, the scribe(s) of the Dragon Prayer Book and the creators of most software seem to be invisible authors. Kirschenbaum writes: “At the time Atari’s programmers were not credited in the documentation for any of the games they worked on, so Robinett created an Easter egg that allowed a player to display his name on the screen by finding and transporting an all but invisible one-pixel object.” Robinett’s Easter egg reminded me of colophons that some scribes left behind in order to sign their work discreetly. There is no colophon in the Dragon Prayer Book– at least that we have found, so the “authors” of the prayer book remain invisible. On the topic of authorship, I think the Dragon Prayer Book has a wide array of authors, from the scribes to the vellum-makers to the people who bound and rebound its pages. Perhaps even the people who wrote the marginalia in the margins of the prayer book can be considered contributors of sorts. The papermaker too, who created the paper pages at the beginning and end of the prayer book should be considered a contributor, and was the only “author” who left their mark. Invisible until a light has been shown onto it, even the watermark in the prayer book is more of an Easter egg than a direct statement of authorship. As we debate the question “what is a book?” it’s important to reflect on the role of authorship in bookmaking, and on whether or not a book needs a visible author to be credible.