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The Nature of Libraries

Books and Other Stories

Books, or monographs as they called in library parlance, are works which have a beginning, and more importantly, an end. They are intended to be complete and whole. But what actually makes a book, a book? Is it the length ... the organization ... the content? Does there have to be covers? ... a title?

At its most basic, the book is one type of convenient container for information.

To be passed on to others efficiently and effectively, information has to be stored, conveyed, and disseminated. Memory is one form of storage but it has limitations. There are only so many details which can be instantly recalled and verbal conveyance often causes the information to change, as anyone who has ever played the children's game "Gossip" well knows.

Once writing developed, storing information on or in media of some kind was an obvious choice of conveyance. Creating or choosing early media for the communication of information was governed by several factors. First, the media had to be sturdy enough to survive. While carvings on the walls of buildings could be pretty sturdy, and capable of surviving through many generations, they lacked portability. Clay and stone tablets were more portable but they were vulnerable to breakage, and like wall carvings, labour intensive, heavy, and bulky. As well, chiselling a message in stone was not a quick operation.

As information increased in value, the need for a lighter, more flexible, long-lived material upon which to record it in a timely fashion became more urgent. At some point, someone conceived the idea of a "rollable" container, made of hide or some other material, on which information could be written. The rolled container would help protect the information inside and decrease storage space. Hide scrolls were lighter than stone, and definitely more flexible, but scrolls made of thinner material would work even better. The Egyptians used the papyrus plant to develop a form of paper which became so popular and so valuable that the secret of its preparation was kept as a royal monopoly, thus providing an early example of controlling information by attempting to control the media.

But scrolls had a major limitation for an avid record-keeper or eager researcher; if the needed information was at the end of the roll, you were forced to unroll the entire scroll to retrieve it. Further, rolling and unrolling the scroll could damage the content and wear out the container. There was a need to provide more immediate access to all parts of the information in the container. Development of the codex in about the first century solved that problem by dividing the information containers into squares or rectangles which could be ordered based on their content. Whether the information was at the beginning or the end, it could be readily accessed. Recording information on both sides of a "page" increased storage capacity and portability. Covers could be added to provide support and protection. Papyrus gave way to parchment / vellum and then to paper.

Having developed a reasonable container for information, the question of conveying the information to more people and places arose. In the fourteen or so centuries after the codex appeared, books were created by hand-copying (manuscripts) and by limited printing through laboriously carved and inked wooden blocks. In western culture, that changed with the appearance of Johannes Gutenberg.

The story of Gutenberg and the moveable printing press is well-known but it is sometimes difficult, centuries later, to comprehend the enormous significance of this invention. In the 1430s Gutenberg broke down the traditional wooden block into individual letters which could be placed on a frame or "forme" in any order. From this, a page would be printed. The letters were then pulled out, and re-ordered to create the content of a new page -- thus moveable type. Current scholarship suggests several amendments to this story and its reliance on one man; however, that does not diminish the impact the use of moveable type had on information storage, conveyance, and dissemination.

Initially manuscript books remained competitive with the "ars artificialiter scribendi" (artificial writing), mainly because the technology was closely guarded. However, a series of events in Gutenberg's own life and in the city of Mainz, where the idea had taken root, caused the technology to spread by the 1460s.

Early printed books were sometimes wonderfully illustrated with woodcuts.

Among early printed works are:

Sacred Texts: Diamond Sutra, British Library

Treasures in Full: Gutenberg Bible, British Library

Naturalis historia , Pliny, 1469, the first science book printed, Perseus Collection

Canterbury's Tales, William Caxton's editions, British Library

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, Copernicus, 1543, which stated the earth revolves around the sun, Harvard

Historiae animalium, Gesner 1551-1587, an encyclopedia of the ancient and modern animal kingdom, National Library of Medicine

Sidereus nuncius, Galilei, 1610, questioning Artistotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology, Linda Hall Library

Historia naturalis Brasiliae, Willem Piso, 1648, Rare Books from the Missouri Botanical Garden

Printing served other functions than forwarding conveyance and dissemination; it had an impact on the content of the type and nature of information itself. Printing became known as the "art preservative of all arts". Access to information which forwarded religion, science and technology was important but as the cost of printing dropped, information which provided entertainment appeared. Eventually, this led to the development of other types of containers appropriate to their content such as journals (for "scholarly" work) and newspapers (for more transient information such as news, advertisements, and announcements). The first scientific journal (Transactions of the Royal Society of London) appeared ca.1665. By 1900 there were about 10,000 titles and there are somewhere around 185,000 titles currently. To offer better access to the contents of journals, abstracts (ca.1830) and bibliographic indexes followed. The Victorians enjoyed books of all kinds, including works, such as Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls, which had with few pretensions of being much beyond entertainment.

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Created: 2004/11/21 Last updated: 2017/01/15
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