Friday, May 28, 2010

History of the Book - where I try not to bore you into insensibility

Disclaimer: This post came out longer than I intended but it is hard to condense over 2000 years of book history. Read at your own peril.

The boy and I were invited to visit the rare books library at the University of Texas Medical Center (UTMB) in Galveston, TX. It turned out to be an awesome trip. We toured the library, held some 500+ year old books, viewed and held some 160 year old surgery kits (The Boy, not me), and saw archival materials like microscopes, coffins and surgery tables (covered in velvet don't ya know). I also contributed in a Digital Ethnography course (Not sure how much help I was considering the PhD students were sharp as tacks).

To truly appreciate the ultimate in technology (the written word in book form). One needs to know a little history of the book. If you don't mind I'll pass on a little of my book learn'in. Second disclaimer: I'm not an expert. I'm only a librarian with 4 rare books courses and my own research to go on. If I've totally screwed this up I'm sorry. I'm just regurgitating information that I learned at school. Take it for what it's worth.

The earliest form of a book. The cuneiform* tablet is the start of the pen to paper movement. The library that the Boy and I went to didn't have any cuneiform tablets. In library school I had the pleasure to take several rare book courses and was able to view and handle a cuneiform tablet. Let me tell you, when you hold one in your hand the sense of history is awe inspiring.

The next phase of book production is the papyrus scroll*. More handy than a chunk of rock but not near as much fun if you want to beat some sense into someone. This form wasn't used for as long as later forms. Why? Because outside of the Euphrates valley papyrus tended to dry out and break apart. That could be bad if you were making contracts with enemies.
We didn't see any of these on Tuesday but I've seen them before. we get to what we think of as a book. This is a very old codex.* Codex were the first books in the form that we know them as today. From what I remember, from my rare books courses, is that early Roman Christians found themselves getting caught carrying around scrolls of scripture. Getting caught was not a good thing. It usually meant spending some quality (if not quantity) time in the forum fending off lions or bears. The outcomes were usually not great for the Christians. Their solution was to put their scriptures into a form that could be carried in the deep pockets of their toga. I can imagine that it ruined the fall of the toga but if it was a choice between being fashionable or some lion's feast I think I'd be unfashionable. What about you?

6 or 7 hundred years later some monk spent a goodly amount of time writing out the text on this page*. When he was done he would pass it off to his buddy at the next desk who would draw and color the illumination. Another monk would sew all the pages together in book form. Yet, another monk would make the boards (literally wooden boards) to use as covers. And, that all happened after another monk made the paper and yet another blocked out where everthing on each page went. Book making was not for the faint of heart. Now, you know where Henry Ford got the idea for making cars on an assembly line. (I really don't know that for a fact but it sounds vaguely plausible.)

An original Gutenberg Bible*. Gutenberg developed movable type in about 1450. He wasn't the first, he just had better PR. The Chinese were way ahead of him but since they were isolated off in the East Gutenberg had the advantage.
Check out the hand colored illumination. Book printers wanted to emulate the work of the monk's illumination.
Because that is what people were use to.
Printers hated to disappoint them.

This lovely quatro 1526 Hippocra is a perfect example of a handpress movable type book. Ignore my hand, look at those wonderful woodcut drawings.

Early 17th century handpress book. Look at the fantastic woodcut illustrations. That, my friends, is perfection in a book.
What's it worth?
Try $750,000.00.
It was lots of fun thumbing through a book worth about what I'll make in 10 years. The Boy was impressed.

A hundred years or so later and the only advancement to the design is that instead of handpress they are now machine press. The illustrations are now moving from woodcuts to metal plates. Another thing that is different, the books are printed in a variety of languages. Not just Latin.

Another 100+ years?
Pretty much the same.
Big difference is the paper that is being used.
By about 1850 paper stopped being made out of linen. They just plain ran out. And digging up grave to unwrap dead people was really a buzz kill.
Take a look at the Hippocra. Compare it to this medical book. Notice the spots and splotches on the 1859 book. Groundwood paper becomes very brittle and rusts easily. It doesn't help that Galveston is very humid.

100+ years later books are still in the same form as they were in 1500 years before. Form and function, people. Form and function. You just don't mess with a good thing. Because I appreciate the feel of a book in my hand is probably why I'll never get a Kindle or an iPad. Just like us, all books carry a little bit of their ancestry with them.

Quick Glossary
Handpress = a printing press that uses hand power to crank the typeset into the paper.
Woodcut = a block of wood that is carved to produce an illustration. Dipped in ink and applied to the paper.
Quatro = The paper on which the text is printed is folded 4 times.
Folio = The paper is folded in half. The only known Spakespeare works are printed and folded as folios.
Hippocra = The writings of Hippocrates, a physician that lived between 450 to 380 BC.
Manuscript = written by hand.

*shamelessly stole from a google image search. All others were taken by me at the UTMB library.

Okay, you can wake up now. No quiz at the end of this lecture. Aren't you lucky? You're welcome.

I hope you enjoyed something out of this long-winded rambling. Have a great weekend.



  1. Thanks for the biblio-illumination. I quite enjoyed the tour. Cheers Michele!!

  2. This was excellent, and not boring at all. We've seen the Gutenberg they have out here at the Huntington Library, and it's pretty impressive. Have you read "How the Irish Saved Civilization"? Really readable story of the Irish monks and their impact on the world i.e. the copying of books.

  3. Very well done! Someday I would love to visit and old and rare bookstore just to see some of the books. Just to think...


  4. What perfect timing for the Spin Cycle Technology edition! Wanna be first?

  5. I for one found that to be very interesting. amazing the book was made out of linen. imagine today? They're not even in book form anymore, hello Kindle anyone?

  6. Thanks for the book history lesson - much of which I know from my own studies of early Christian history - but it's fascinating stuff. I like illuminated texts and for awhile I did a little calligraphy which taught me patience because once you get to the bottom of the parchment and totally screw it up you realize you must start all over again. How those monks did it all day long with nothing but candles and came up with such beauty is beyond me. What a fabulous posting - thanks for sharing your trip and your knowledge with us! xo P.S. I'd dearly love to be able to view the Dead Sea Scrolls for what it's worth...

  7. Great post and great whirlwind tour! I took a grad course on book history and then got to team teach an undergrad course, I love this subject. It covers so many different areas of life and history.

    My mind explodes when I think about those monks and how much time it took to make those books.

  8. Illuminated manuscripts were like the first comic books. Pencil, Inks, Color, Letter.

    (Not necessarily in that order.)

    I wonder how one gets blood out of a velvet surgery table?

  9. This is awesome! I totally agree that to appreciate technology we should know a bit about how books even came about.

  10. Love this. I will never get a kindle because books are so much better.

  11. Thanks for the history lesson. I really enjoyed that!

  12. That wasn't long at all. I love the photos which "illustrate" the differences in printing technology.

    I originally wanted to be a musicologist and have my dissertation be how technology changed the way music is performed. Perhaps you can delve in this topic further and show how changes in printing technology changes what topics were written throughout history.