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Cash Cows: The Cattle Behind Our Pages and Screens

Updated: May 31, 2021

Cattle have graced the pages, bindings, and covers of the book for the majority of its existence. Anyone familiar with leather covers, vellum, or glue isn't surprised by the presence of cow products in bookmaking. But as our contemporary definition of “book” has expanded to include forms such as e-readers, computers, and mobile phones, where are cattle located in digital book production? Is there such a thing as “digital vellum”? Do we still depend on cattle for our books?

What do we discover in the search for cows in digital book objects?

Diagram breaking down the Bos taurus species, designed by Caroline McCraw.

Before diving into the digital, it's useful to consider the historical context of the bovine-bibliographic relationship. The word “cattle” (our only English term that encapsulates all members of the Bos taurus species—regardless of gender, age, or reproductive status) draws from the same etymological root as the word "capital." So historically and linguistically, cattle have always functioned as markers of wealth and possession in the English language. Issues of translation and inter-species breeding make it difficult to confidently trace the exact historical presence of the Bos taurus species, whether in literary references or animal byproducts. However, some version of cattle has been with (and within) the book from the very beginning.

Cow as Muse

The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered to be the earliest surviving work of literature; and sure enough, the 2,100 BCE Sumerian tablets talk about cows. There are cows in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, in the Bible, in the Qur’an, and in the Diamond Sutra. In English, the word “cow” (in this instance, spelled “cuu”) and the world calf (or “cælf") first appear in the Corpus Glossary, an 8th-century CE glossary of Latin and Old English words that was one of the earliest works written in English.

Cattle stampede across the English textual canon—through plays, poems, inventories, farming guides, and stories, from Shakespeare (“But where the Bull and Cow are both milk-white, They neuer doe beget a cole-blacke-Calfe.” - Titus Andronicus) to George Orwell’s 1945 Animal Farm; and because cows are one of the first animals that young children learn about, there are even hundreds of children’s books just about cows. From the Old Testament to Cindy Moo, cattle have plodded faithfully across our pages, century after century.

Cow in Use

In the history of manuscripts, calfskin—or vellum—has been prized as one of the most desirable and durable writing surfaces. A reader can distinguish between the more textured “hair side” and the smoother “flesh side” of a page of vellum, and even observe scarring from the animal’s life.

It is difficult to date when humans began writing on animal skin, but Assyrians and Babylonians wrote on what we now identify as vellum as early as 6th century BCE. Likewise, leather has been used since the 4th or 5th century BCE as binding material, and then eventually for full book covers that functioned as both decoration and protection.

Cattle byproducts have also been used for bookbinding glue and even for bookmaking bone folders and niche products like cow dung notebooks. As a field, bibliography has considerable experience in identifying, handling, and assessing cattle-based products in physical book objects.

But what about digital book forms?

In considering digital book forms, we must focus on the devices that contain text—namely, e-readers, computers, and mobile phones. Because an author has so little control over which device a reader is using, it becomes challenging to isolate universal materials found in every device. With this in mind, the question of “What is digital vellum?” becomes somewhat obsolete if taken literally. however, the question of the “digital material” can perhaps serve as a guide for tracing the physical and material realities necessary for our digital world to function. So, where—in this digital material—are the cows?

While the ecological contents of a single device are seemingly impossible to trace, we can talk about batteries. E-readers and laptops run on lithium polymer batteries, which enable the circuits, the e-ink, the brightness—essentially everything necessary for these reading devices to function.

Without a battery, the Kindle would cease to be a book.

For optimal functioning of lithium polymer batteries, polymers with animal derived components (ADCs) are used as a lubricant in the battery construction, preventing the polymer from getting stuck to metal surfaces. The ADCs used are stearates, which are derived from beef fat tallow. In other words, the batteries that keep our devices pulsing and alive are only made possible by the lives of cattle, and our digital conceptions of the book cannot exist without cattle and the industry we have built around them.

While digital book forms only rely on animal byproducts, it’s worth noting that the capital return on all parts of cattle is factored into the financial incentives of cattle industries. This speaks to the impossibility of truly calculating the ecological implications of our technology—especially upon an isolated species.

What does it mean that “In Tibet… Chinese lithium mining has leaked chemicals like hydrochloric acid into the Liqi River, which resulted in the poisoning of fish and the killing of livestock”? Or that in the “Lithium Triangle” of South America, water grows increasingly polluted for humans and animals? And yet these salt flats now provide mining for lithium and salt for cattle salt licks, a tight-knit cycle of production and consumption...

In our calculation of the cow’s presence within our individual devices, how do we factor in the large-scale environmental impact of digital product disposal? Or the animal products used in the necessary accessories for said devices (see the leather Kindle cover fiasco). Ultimately, our current digital book forms do not allow the traditional ease of recognition when it comes to their ingredients. It's unlikely that we’ll ever be as certain about the living creatures that haunt our digital literary objects as we are about those in manuscripts.

Although our technology feels so alive in our hands and laps, it is only possible because of vast un-aliveness. While digital book forms are no longer bound by animal-derived leather or glue, cattle are still one of the many animals that hold our texts together.


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