Last week NPR’s Weekend Edition reported on the delay of Queen Elizabeth II’s “Gracious Address” to Parliament, which lays out the government’s agenda.  Low and behold, in this story Melissa Block spoke of vellum and archival parchment!

Block explained that the goatskin parchment used in Britain is actually an archival parchment that contains no goatskin.  According to The Sun, it has kept the name goatskin parchment because it bears a watermark in the shape of a goat.  According to The Telegraph, this high-quality archival paper is guaranteed to last for 500 years.

In reality, the problem is not the goatskin but instead the stunning results from the recent parliamentary election that has left Theresa May’s Conservatives in talks with the Democratic Unionist Party over support for the minority government.  Apparently, a number of versions of the speech were drafted for the Queen, anticipating various coalitions.

This is a somewhat touchy issue for the British — last year, the House of Lords decided to stop printing laws on vellum as a cost-saving measure, but the Cabinet Office came up with the money out of its budget to keep the practice going.  (Vellum is made from calfskin.  And according to a piece from the Worcester Cathedral Library, Parliament has been debating this issue since at least 1999.)  The Digital Preservation Coalition in Britain used the episode as an opportunity to talk about utilizing digital preservation rather than depending on old paper technologies.  (The BBC article I’ve linked points out the typical complications of such work.)

If you want more information, the National Archives has a page about the differences between parchment, vellum, and paper.  And the Worcester Cathedral blog linked above also has a nice history of various writing media.

In the end, talk of parchment got much more attention than the speech did itself!