The Internet: A Modern Scroll for Users of the Codex

Modern audiences, for the most part, have no experience using physical scrolls.  Today’s literature is printed in codices, which people more commonly call a “book.”  Bringing together signatures, or groupings, of printed sheets, codices gradually replaced scrolls after their introduction by the Romans.  There are only a few examples of modern scrolls, including the original copy of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road.  However, the Internet has effectively reinvented the scroll, with some important carry-overs from the codex, dramatically improving usability from physical media.

The original scroll of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

The original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Although some websites make use of a modified idea of page turning, the majority of web pages require readers to scroll down to see new content.  The idea of “scrolling” up and down a page has even impacted changing technologies, including the use of finger scrolling on mobile phones and the addition of “scroll wheels” to computer mice.

The Internet, however, has broken through the barriers of physical media, allowing the benefits of the scroll and the codex to be combined, improving the user experience.  One of the many examples of this is the use of tags, common for online newspaper and blogs – including this one!  These tags serve in a similar fashion to the index common in codices, combining content of a similar subject for quick reference.

Computer technology, in addition to merging positive aspects of print media, has also introduced new tools to the reading and use of information.  One of the most helpful of these tools is the “find” command, which allows users to locate a word or phrase within a body of text.  This function has made research incredibly more efficient, as it allows viewers to scan online documents in a matter of seconds.  The technology is so popular and useful that digitized documents are often run through OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software, so that these records can also be run through “find” commands.  The “find” command has become so integral to modern reading that today’s youth often vocalize a wish for physical media to come with a similar search function!

A medieval manuscript, in codex form.  Notice the ink prints from a pesky cat!

A medieval manuscript, in codex form. Notice the ink prints from a pesky cat!

The Internet has brought great innovation to the hands of researchers and casual viewers.  However, the structure of the Internet has been inspired by both the modern codex and the outdated scroll, combining elements of the two with original tools to create a powerful reading style simply impossible to mimic using existing physical media.  Although the scroll has been phased out of popularity, this form of print technology, as well as the codex, have had major impacts on the display and organization of information in a digital context.

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