History of the Book: Some Cool Things I’m Learning This Semester

Like most of us, I have spent a lot of time with books in my life. Books I owned, books I admired at bookstores, books I’ve checked in and out to patrons. Thousands of books have passed through my hands. But, never had I thought about them as deeply as I have been since I started taking History of the Book this semester. The aim of this course is to provide MLIS students with a brief overview of the creation and development of the book, from its precursors up to modern times. I’d like to share with you a few of the highlights of what I’ve learned so far.

We started at the very beginning, first discussing the foundations of writing practices. People generally began writing because they wanted to keep track of things like animals they hunted or the number of crops they had. Because of this, they began to find ways to record information through drawings. This eventually led to the development of pictographs (writing systems that use a set of pictures to convey meaning) and symbol-based writing systems. It is from these early systems that the Latin alphabet we are familiar with in modern times was grown.

We then shifted our attention to the work of monks during the medieval period. Traditionally, monasteries included areas known as scriptoriums, where monks would sit for many hours writing and copying books by hand. Most of these were religious texts that were heavily decorated. The most divine manuscripts were “illuminated” with decorations made of precious stones and metals. At this time, most texts were written on parchment or vellum, which is made of animal skin and thus a lengthy process to produce. Manuscripts of this era were made for only the wealthiest members of society. This began to change in the 15th century, when a move from scrolls and large format books to smaller pocket-sized books came about, allowing for greater access to materials. Especially popular among people during this time were Books of Hours, or small devotional books.

Then, we moved out of the times where people copied everything by hand and into the wild, wonderful world of printing. The early days of printing are referred to as the period of the Incunabula. Incunabula are printed books produced before the year 1600. They are not manuscripts, but stylistically appear very similar. 

From there, we began to move toward the modern era, where books began to be most commonly made of paper and bound in hardback casings. In this period, books begin to look a lot more like what we are familiar with seeing today. Pagination (numbered pages) becomes more widespread and fonts are developed that are still in use today.

Now in class we have begun to study the mass production of books and how books changed from luxury items that only the wealthy could afford to a resource accessible to many people. When I enrolled in this course, I expected it to be a lot of fun, and I was correct. What I didn’t expect, however, is that this background historical knowledge has helped to reshape my perspective on books and information resources generally. By gaining an appreciation of how difficult books were to create and acquire for hundreds of years, I now have a better perspective of how large of a shift our world has endured in modern times, and how much access we truly have. It might be corny to say, but sometimes the best lessons for the future come from the past. 

What have you been learning in your classes this semester? I’d love to hear

Mary Elizabeth Allen is an MLIS student at San Jose State University. She holds a B.A. in Literature with an emphasis in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her professional interests include: archives studies, the intersections between critical librarianship and social justice, and radical feminist scholarship. 

Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

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