History & Evolution of Books

Instructor: Michelle DeSalvo

Michelle has been an academic librarian for over twenty years. She has a Master’s Degree in Library Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Have you ever wondered how books were invented? In this lesson, we will look at the surprising history of books, including the four main origins. We will also find out how books helped people communicate on a worldwide scale.

The Origin of Books and Mass Communication

What exactly defines a book? A book is any written document. Through history, many different materials have been used for books, such as beech bark and bamboo. In Mesopotamia, cuneiform tablets were made from clay and bore little resemblance to books today.

Cuneiform tablets are clay tablets that were used like books in the ancient world.
Cunieform Tablet

As books have evolved, mass communication has also unfolded. Mass communication is the sharing of ideas on a large scale. Today, both books and mass communication can be either print or online. Let's explore the four main ways that books have changed over time and helped people spread their ideas.

Initial Origins: Scrolls and Codex

In ancient Egypt, one of the first book formats was a scroll. A scroll was a rolled manuscript made from the Papyrus plant. Since you needed two hands to use them, scrolls were clunky. The average scroll was 14 to 52 feet. Papyrus easily cracked, and only fragments of these scrolls are available today.

Scrolls were made from papyrus and were fragile.

The Romans created the codex, which was bound and opened up like a book with pages. The wood covers were durable. The pages were created from parchment, which is a type of animal skin (sometimes called vellum). The Romans even added a table of contents and indexes. Since the codex was compact and easy to carry, the early Christians used this format to bring the Gospels to distant lands.

Printed Books

The Chinese had many famous inventions, including paper and gunpowder. In AD 868, they also made the first truly printed book called The Diamond Sutra.

China also had the first moveable type. Moveable type used molds of individual letters and characters that could be arranged into words on a frame and inked, then pressed against material to create a page of text. The molds could be reused, saving time and effort. The Chinese used clay in the molds, which could break. In contrast, the Koreans used bronze, which was sturdier. In the year AD 1377, the Koreans designed a Buddhist book called the Jikji.

Although Korea's moveable type was successful, it wasn't until the Gutenberg printing press that books really caught on. Before Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, only the wealthy could afford books. Gutenberg used his metalworking skills to design a steady and methodical press, using moveable type and printing on parchment. The Gutenberg Bible was the first book that was mass produced and not copied by hand, increasing both its availability and accuracy.

With the invention of the printing press, literacy began to flourish, and people became true armchair travelers. Reference books like dictionaries also became popular.

In addition to books, pamphlets were printed. Pamphlets were used to debate ideas, including Martin Luther's challenge of the Catholic Church. Pamphlets eventually led to newspapers and magazines, two major means of mass communication today.

Developments in Printing

Modern books are glued together, and this helps keep costs down.
New books at bookstore

Originally, books were sewn together at a bindery, which was expensive. The development of glued books made them more affordable and led to the paperback novel. In the 1930s, the Penguin publisher began selling books at busy places. For the price of a cigarette pack, you could pick up a book.

Another new development is printing-on-demand, which allows printers to print according to the market. For instance, books can be saved to Portable Document Format (PDF) and printed individually. In the past, printers and publishers had to estimate how many books to print, and overestimating could lead to excess copies sitting in a costly warehouse. Printing-on-demand helps eliminate some of that guesswork.

Digital Books

Do you own a Kindle or Nook? Have you ever wondered how eBooks became wildly successful?

Project Gutenberg began as a project to digitize books. More than 50,000 online books are available for free via this project. Project Gutenberg was started in the 1970s, which is a good twenty years before the Internet became widely available.

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