The Origins of Books by Sharren Reil

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I work in a library, so every day I am surrounded by shelf after shelf of books. I have always taken my access to books for granted, and do not think about the history, and inventions, that have led to our modern libraries full of paper back and hard cover books.

I know a bit about paper because as a young hippy girl, my friends and I made our own paper from local plants that we cooked and mashed, and then put thin layers out to dry on screens. The paper was thick and uneven, but we were thrilled!

So, looking at these books got me thinking about the history of the modern book. Research tells me that we have been passing on information through marks on clay tablets, scrolls, codex’s, and then books for almost two thousand years.

The history of the book starts with the invention of writing. Writing is simply using symbols to mean certain objects or ideas. Writing originated as a form of record keeping in Sumer sometime in the 31st century BC. The Sumerians used clay tablets to record legal contracts, lists of assets, and eventually record literature and myths. While durable, the tablets were obviously heavy and hard to haul around.

Elsewhere, the ancient Egyptians were busy making a type of paper from papyrus reed. They made a rough paper and used this to make scrolls of several sheets passed together to make long scrolls of ten meters or more. The first scrolls we have date from the Fifth Dynasty around 2400 BC. Since you needed two hands to use them, scrolls were awkward to use. The papyrus also cracked very easily and today we only have fragments of ancient scrolls.

The industrious Romans invented the codex. This was a book like format made with parchment. Parchment is animal skin. It is more durable than the plant based scrolls and the Romans bound their books with wood covers. They were the first to add a table of contents and indexes.

Before books, writing on bone, shells, wood and silk was prevalent in China long before the 2nd century BC. Paper was invented in China around the first century AD. Their first books were called jiance or jiandu, and were made of rolls of thin split and dried bamboo bound together with hemp, silk, or leather.

All of the above was slow and took a lot of work to produce each item with writing on it. We have the Chinese to thank for inventing printing sometime around 868 AD. The oldest printed book is called the Diamond Sutra, and was printed using a method called woodblock printing. The text had to be carved into the wood blocks surface, and then some type of ink was put on the woodblock and it could be used to stamp out a page. This was very time consuming, as you had to carve out a woodblock for each new endeavor!

A forward thinking gent by the name of Bi Sheng invented the process of movable type printing. This method would later be improved upon by Johannes Gutenberg. We are now well on our way to the mass production of written works. Before Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, only very rich individuals could afford books. Gutenberg used his skills to design a sturdy and dependable press, using moveable type and printing on parchment. The Gutenberg Bible was the very first book that was mass produced and not copied by hand. With the invention of the printing press, literacy began to flourish!

Reference books became popular and pamphlets were easily distributed which eventually led to newspapers and magazines. I really can’t imagine life without books and reading, and feel so very thankful that I live in a time and place where books are available for everyone to enjoy. Next time you are browsing in your library, stop and think about all the steps that had to be mastered to give us our beloved books!

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