The history of books

The history of books follows a suite of technological innovations for books. These improved the quality of text conservation, the access to information, portability, and the cost of production. This history has been linked to political and economical contingencies, the history of ideas, and the history of religion.

Origins and antiquity

Writing is a system of linguistic symbols which permit one to transmit and conserve information. Writing appears to have developed between the 7th millennium BC and the 4th millennium BC, first in the form of early mnemonic symbols which became a system of ideograms or pictographs through simplification. The oldest known forms of writing were thus primarily logographic in nature. Later syllabic and alphabetic (or segmental) writing emerged.

Silk, in China, was also a base for writing. Writing was done with brushes. Many other materials were used as bases: bone, bronze, pottery, shell, etc. In India, for example, dried palm tree leaves were used; in Mesoamerica another type of plant, Amate. Any material which will hold and transmit text is a candidate for use in bookmaking.

The book is also linked to the desire of humans to create lasting records. Stones could be the most ancient form of writing, but wood would be the first medium to take the guise of a book. The words biblos and liber first meant “fibre inside of a tree”. In Chinese, the character that means book is an image of a tablet of bamboo. Wooden tablets (Rongorongo) were also made on Easter Island.

Clay tablets

Clay tablets were used in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC. The calamus, an instrument in the form of a triangle, was used to make characters in moist clay. The tablets were fired to dry them out. At Nineveh, 22,000 tablets were found, dating from the seventh century BC; this was the archive and library of the kings of Assyria, who had workshops of copyists and conservationists at their disposal. This presupposes a degree of organization with respect to books, consideration given to conservation, classification, etc.


After extracting the marrow from the stems, a series of steps (humidification, pressing, drying, gluing, and cutting), produced media of variable quality, the best being used for sacred writing. In Ancient Egypt, papyrus was used for writing maybe as early as from First Dynasty, but first evidence is from the account books of King Neferirkare Kakai of the Fifth Dynasty (about 2400 BC).A calamus, the stem of a reed sharpened to a point, or bird feathers were used for writing. The script of Egyptian scribes was called hieratic, or sacredotal writing; it is not hieroglyphic, but a simplified form more adapted to manuscript writing (hieroglyphs usually being engraved or painted).

Papyrus books were in the form of a scroll of several sheets pasted together, for a total length of up to 10 meters or even more. Some books, such as the history of the reign of Ramses III, were over 40 meters long. Books rolled out horizontally; the text occupied one side, and was divided into columns. The title was indicated by a label attached to the cylinder containing the book. Many papyrus texts come from tombs, where prayers and sacred texts were deposited (such as the Book of the Dead, from the early 2nd millennium BC).

These examples demonstrate that the development of the book, in its material makeup and external appearance, depended on a content dictated by political (the histories of pharaohs) and religious (belief in an afterlife) values. The particular influence afforded to writing and word perhaps motivated research into ways of conserving texts.

East Asia

Writing on bone, shells, wood and silk existed in China by the second century BC. Paper was invented in China around the 1st century AD. The discovery of the process using the bark of the blackberry bush is attributed to Ts’ai Louen, but it may be older. Texts were reproduced by woodblock printing; the diffusion of Buddhist texts was a main impetus to large-scale production.

The format of the book evolved in China in a similar way to that in Europe, but much more slowly, and with intermediate stages of scrolls folded concertina-style, scrolls bound at one edge (“butterfly books”) and so on. Printing was nearly always on one side of the paper only.

Pre-columbian codices of the Americas

The only currently deciphered complete writing system in the Americas is the Maya script. The Maya, along with several other cultures in Mesoamerica, constructed concertina-style books written on Amatl paper. Sadly, nearly all Mayan texts were destroyed by the Spanish during colonization on cultural and religious grounds. One of the few surviving examples is the Dresden Codex.

Although only the Maya have been shown to have a writing system capable of conveying any concept that can be conveyed via speech, (at about the same level as the modern Japanese writing system), other Mesoamerican cultures had more rudimentary ideographical writing systems which were contained in similar concertina-style books, one such example being the Aztec codices.

Wax tablets


Romans used wax-coated wooden tablets (pugillares) upon which they could write and erase by using a stylus. One end of the stylus was pointed, and the other was spherical. Usually these tablets were used for everyday purposes (accounting, notes) and for teaching writing to children, according to the methods discussed by Quintilian in his Institutio Oratoria X Chapter 3. Several of these tablets could be assembled in a form similar to a codex. Also the etymology of the word codex (block of wood) suggest that it may have developed from wooden wax tablets.[2]


Parchment progressively replaced papyrus. Legend attributes its invention to Eumenes II, the king of Pergamon, from which comes the name “pergamineum,” which became “parchment.” Its production began around the 3rd century BC. Made using the skins of animals (sheep, cattle, donkey, antelope, etc.), parchment proved easier to conserve over time; it was more solid, and allowed one to erase text. It was a very expensive medium because of the rarity of material and the time required to produce a document. Vellum is the finest quality of parchment.

Greece and Rome

The scroll of papyrus is called “volumen” in Latin, a word which signifies “circular movement,” “roll,” “spiral,” “whirlpool,” “revolution” and finally “a roll of writing paper, a rolled manuscript, or a book.”

In the 7th century Isidore of Seville explains the relation between codex, book and scroll in his Etymologiae (VI.13) as this:

A codex is composed of many books (librorum); a book is of one scroll (voluminis). It is called codex by way of metaphor from the trunks (caudex) of trees or vines, as if it were a wooden stock, because it contains in itself a multitude of books, as it were of branches.Description

The scroll is rolled around two vertical wooden axes. This design allows only sequential usage; one is obliged to read the text in the order in which it is written, and it is impossible to place a marker in order to directly access a precise point in the text. It is comparable to modern video cassettes. Moreover, the reader must use both hands to hold on to the vertical wooden rolls and therefore cannot read and write at the same time. The only volumen in common usage today is the Jewish Torah.

Book culture

The authors of Antiquity had no rights concerning their published works; there were neither authors’ nor publishing rights. Anyone could have a text recopied, and even alter its contents. Scribes earned money and authors earned mostly glory, unless a patron provided cash; a book made its author famous. This followed the traditional conception of the culture: an author stuck to several models, which he imitated and attempted to improve. The status of the author was not regarded as absolutely personal.

From a political and religious point of view, books were censored very early: the works of Protagoras were burned because he was a proponent of agnosticism and argued that one could know whether or not the gods existed. Generally, cultural conflicts led to important periods of book destruction: in 303, the emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of Christian texts. Some Christians later burned libraries, and especially heretical or non-canonical Christian texts. These practices are found throughout human history but have ended in many nations today. A few nations today still greatly censor and even burn books.

But there also exists a less visible but nonetheless effective form of censorship when books are reserved for the elite; the book was not originally a medium for expressive liberty. It may serve to confirm the values of a political system, as during the reign of the emperor Augustus, who skillfully surrounded himself with great authors. This is a good ancient example of the control of the media by a political power. More importantly, private censorship of books has occurred and continues today. What books one chooses to privately read, to destroy, to throw away, to not sell, and what to pass along to their children involves choosing some books over others. Private individuals can and do censor themselves and others, with little or no support and approval from the governing bodies of their time.

Proliferation and conservation of books in Greece

Little information concerning books in Ancient Greece survives. Several vases (Sixth century BC and fifth century BC) bear images of volumina. There was undoubtedly no extensive trade in books, but there existed several sites devoted to the sale of books.

The spread of books, and attention to their cataloging and conservation, as well as literary criticism developed during the Hellenistic period with the creation of large libraries in response to the desire for knowledge exemplified by Aristotle. These libraries were undoubtedly also built as demonstrations of political prestige:

The Library of Alexandria, a library created by Ptolemy Soter and set up by Demetrius Phalereus (Demetrius of Phaleron). It contained 500,900 volumes (in the Museion section) and 40,000 at the Serapis temple (Serapeion). All books in the luggage of visitors to Egypt were inspected, and could be held for copying. The Museion was partially destroyed in 47 BC.

The Library at Pergamon, founded by Attalus I; it contained 200,000 volumes which were moved to the Serapeion by Mark Antony and Cleopatra, after the destruction of the Museion. The Serapeion was partially destroyed in 391, and the last books disappeared in 641 CE following the Arab conquest.

The Library at Athens, the Ptolemaion, which gained importance following the destruction of the Library at Alexandria ; the library of Pantainos, around 100 CE; the library of Hadrian, in 132 CE.

The Library at Rhodes, a library that rivaled the Library of Alexandria.

The Library at Antioch, a public library of which Euphorion of Chalcis was the director near the end of the 3rd century.

The libraries had copyist workshops, and the general organisation of books allowed for the following:

Conservation of an example of each text

Translation (the Septuagint Bible, for example)

Literary criticisms in order to establish reference texts for the copy (example : The Iliad and The Odyssey)

A catalog of books

The copy itself, which allowed books to be disseminated

Book production in Rome

Book production developed in Rome in the first century BC with Latin literature that had been influenced by the Greek.

This diffusion primarily concerned circles of literary individuals. Atticus was the editor of his friend Cicero. However, the book business progressively extended itself through the Roman Empire; for example, there were bookstores in Lyon. The spread of the book was aided by the extension of the Empire, which implied the imposition of the Latin tongue on a great number of people (in Spain, Africa, etc.).

Libraries were private or created at the behest of an individual. Julius Caesar, for example, wanted to establish one in Rome, proving that libraries were signs of political prestige.

In the year 377, there were 28 libraries in Rome, and it is known that there were many smaller libraries in other cities. Despite the great distribution of books, scientists do not have a complete picture as to the literary scene in antiquity as thousands of books have been lost through time.


Papermaking has traditionally been traced to China about AD 105, when Cai Lun, an official attached to the Imperial court during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), created a sheet of paper using mulberry and other bast fibres along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste.

While paper used for wrapping and padding was used in China since the 2nd century BC, paper used as a writing medium only became widespread by the 3rd century.By the 6th century in China, sheets of paper were beginning to be used for toilet paper as well.During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907) paper was folded and sewn into square bags to preserve the flavor of tea. The Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279) that followed was the first government to issue paper currency.

Middle Ages

By the end of antiquity, between the 2nd century and 4th century, the codex had replaced the scroll. The book was no longer a continuous roll, but a collection of sheets attached at the back. It became possible to access a precise point in the text directly. The codex is equally easy to rest on a table, which permits the reader to take notes while he or she is reading. The codex form improved with the separation of words, capital letters, and punctuation, which permitted silent reading. Tables of contents and indices facilitated direct access to information. This form was so effective that it is still the standard book form, over 1500 years after its appearance.

Paper would progressively replace parchment. Cheaper to produce, it allowed a greater diffusion of books.

Books in monasteries

A number of Christian books were destroyed at the order of Diocletian in 304 AD. During the turbulent periods of the invasions, it was the monasteries that conserved religious texts and certain works of Antiquity for the West. But there would also be important copying centers in Byzantium.

The role of monasteries in the conservation of books is not without some ambiguity:

Reading was an important activity in the lives of monks, which can be divided into prayer, intellectual work, and manual labor (in the Benedictine order, for example). It was therefore necessary to make copies of certain works. Accordingly, there existed scriptoria (the plural of scriptorium) in many monasteries, where monks copied and decorated manuscripts that had been preserved.

However, the conservation of books was not exclusively in order to preserve ancient culture; it was especially relevant to understanding religious texts with the aid of ancient knowledge. Some works were never recopied, having been judged too dangerous for the monks. Morever, in need of blank media, the monks scraped off manuscripts, thereby destroying ancient works. The transmission of knowledge was centered primarily on sacred texts.

Copying and conserving books

Despite this ambiguity, monasteries in the West and the Eastern Empire permitted the conservation of a certain number of secular texts, and several libraries were created: for example, Cassiodorus (‘Vivarum’ in Calabro, around 550), or Constantine I in Constantinople. There were several libraries, but the survival of books often depended on political battles and ideologies, which sometimes entailed massive destruction of books or difficulties in production (for example, the distribution of books during the Iconoclasm between 730 and 842). A long list of very old and surviving libraries that now form part of the Vatican Archives can be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

The scriptorium

The scriptorium was the workroom of monk copyists; here, books were copied, decorated, rebound, and conserved. The armarius directed the work and played the role of librarian.

The role of the copyist was multifaceted: for example, thanks to their work, texts circulated from one monastery to another. Copies also allowed monks to learn texts and to perfect their religious education. The relationship with the book thus defined itself according to an intellectual relationship with God. But if these copies were sometimes made for the monks themselves, there were also copies made on demand.

The task of copying itself had several phases: the preparation of the manuscript in the form of notebooks once the work was complete, the presentation of pages, the copying itself, revision, correction of errors, decoration, and binding. The book therefore required a variety of competencies, which often made a manuscript a collective effort.

Transformation from the literary edition in the twelfth century

The revival of cities in Europe would change the conditions of book production and extend its influence, and the monastic period of the book would come to an end. This revival accompanied the intellectual renaissance of the period. The Manuscript culture outside of the monastery developed in these university-cities in Europe in this time. It is around the first universities that new structures of production developed: reference manuscripts were used by students and professors for teaching theology and liberal arts. The development of commerce and of the bourgeoisie brought with it a demand for specialized and general texts (law, history, novels, etc.). It is in this period that writing in the common vernacular developed (courtly poetry, novels, etc.). Commercial scriptoria became common, and the profession of book seller came into being, sometimes dealing internationally.

There is also the creation of royal libraries: by Saint Louis and Charles V for example. Books were also collected in private libraries, which became common in the 14th century and 15th centuries.

The use of paper diffused through Europe in the 14th century. This material, less expensive than parchment, came from China via the Arabs in Spain in the eleventh and 12th century. It was used in particular for ordinary copies, while parchment was used for luxury editions.

Printing press

The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 marks the entry of the book into the industrial age. The Western book was no longer a single object, written or reproduced by request. The publication of a book became an enterprise, requiring capital for its realization and a market for its distribution. The cost of each individual book (in a large edition) was lowered enormously, which in turn increased the distribution of books. The book in codex form and printed on paper, as we know it today, dates from the 15th century. Books printed before January 1, 1501, are called incunables.

Handwritten notes by Christopher Columbus on the Latin edition of Marco Polo’s Le livre des merveilles.

1476: Grammatica Graeca, sive compendium octo orationis partium, probably the first book entirely in Greek by Constantine Lascaris

1477: The first printed edition of the Geographia, probably in 1477 in Bologna, was also the first printed book with engraved illustrations.

1485: De Re Aedificatoria, the first printed book on architecture

1488: Missale Aboense was the first book printed for Finland.

1494: Oktoih was the first printed Slavic Cyrillic book.

1495: The first printed book in Danish

1495: The first printed book in Swedish

1499: Catholicon, Breton-French-Latin dictionary, first printed trilingual dictionary, first Breton book, first French dictionary

1501: Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, printed by Ottaviano Petrucci, is the first book of sheet music printed from movable type.

1502: “Aldus Manutius” printed the first portable Octavos, also inventing and using italic type.

1511: Hieromonk Makarije printed the first books in Wallachia (in Slavonic)

1513: Hortulus Animae, polonice believed to be the first book printed in the Polish language.

1516: A reprint of the Lisbon edition of the Sefer Aburdraham is printed in Morocco, the first book printed in Africa.

1517: Psalter, first book printed in the Old Belarusian language by Francysk Skaryna on 6 August 1517

1541: Bovo-Bukh was the first non-religious book to be printed in Yiddish

1545: Linguae Vasconum Primitiae was the first book printed in Basque

1547: Martynas Mažvydas compiled and published the first printed Lithuanian book The Simple Words of Catechism

1550: Abecedarium was the first printed book in the Slovene language, printed by Primož Trubar.

1561: The first printed books in the Romanian language, Tetraevanghelul and Întrebare creştinească (also known as Catehismul) are printed by Coresi in Braşov.

1564: the first book in Irish was printed in Edinburgh, a translation of John Knox’s ‘Liturgy’ by John Carswell, Bishop of the Hebrides.

1564: the first dated Russian book, Apostol, printed by Ivan Fyodorov

1568: the first book in Irish to be printed in Ireland was a Protestant catechism, containing a guide to spelling and sounds in Irish.

1577: Lekah Tov, a commentary on the Book of Esther, was the first book printed in the land of Israel

1581: Ostrog Bible, first complete printed edition of the Bible in Old Church Slavonic

1593: Doctrina Christiana was the first book printed in the Philippines

1629: Nikoloz Cholokashvili helped to publish a Georgian dictionary, the first printed book in Georgian

1640: The Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in North America

1651: Abagar – Filip Stanislavov, first printed book in modern Bulgarian

1678-1703: Hortus Malabaricus included the first instance of Malayalam types being used for printing

1798: The first printed book in Ossetic

1802: New South Wales General Standing Orders was the first book printed in Australia, comprising Government and General Orders issued between 1791 and 1802

1909: Nisthananda Bajracharya authored and printed the first printed book in Nepal Bhasa called Ek Binshati Pragyaparmita.[8]

Aurora Australis, the first book published in Antarctica.

See also Editio princeps, Spread of the printing press

Contemporary era

The demands of the British and Foreign Bible Society (founded 1804), the American Bible Society (founded 1816), and other non-denominational publishers for enormously large and impossibly inexpensive runs of texts led to numerous innovations. The introduction of steam printing presses a little before 1820, closely followed by new steam paper mills, constituted the two most major innovations. Together, they caused book prices to drop and the number of books to increase considerably. Numerous bibliographic features, like the positioning and formulation of titles and subtitles, were also affected by this new production method. New types of documents appeared later in the 19th century: photography, sound recording and film.

Typewriters and eventually desktop publishing let people print and put together their own documents, using staplers, ring binders, etc.

A series of new developments occurred in the 1990s. The spread of digital multimedia, which encodes texts, images, animations, and sounds in a unique and simple form is a novel development. Hypertext further improved access to information. Finally, the internet lowered production and distribution costs, as did printing at the end of the Middle Ages.

It is difficult to predict the future of the book. A good deal of reference material, designed for direct access instead of sequential reading, as for example encyclopedias, exist less and less in for the form of books and more and more on the web. Although electronic books, or e-books, had limited success in the early years, the demand for books in this format has grown dramatically, primarily because of the popularity of e-reader devices and as the number of available titles in this format has increased. E-book readers such as the Sony Reader, Barnes and Noble’s nook, and Amazon’s Kindle have increased in popularity each time a new upgraded version is released. The Kindle in particular has captured public attention not only for the quality of the reading experience but also because users can access books (as well as periodicals and newspapers) wirelessly online (a feature now available in all other e-reader devices). Apple has also entered this arena with applications for the iPhone and iPad which enable e-book reading.


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