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While the 'book' has undergone many permutations over time, the term is used here to identify those written works, whether by one or multiple authors, either composing a narrative, collection of songs, poems, or essay(s) addressing any particular subject that their 'readers' may find illuminating.

The history of the book is a story of numerous technological innovations that improved the quality of text conservation, the access to information, portability, and the cost of production. This history is strongly linked to political and economical contingencies and the history of ideas and religions.[1]

For Books in the Nordan Corpora, follow this link.

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 books. Given this, the human body could be seen as a book, with tattooing, and if we consider that human memory develops and transforms with the appearance of writing, it is perhaps not absurd to consider that this ability makes humans into living books (this idea is illustrated by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, Peter Greenaway in The Pillow Book).

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. Wood tablets have also been found 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.

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.[1]


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).[2] 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.


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 third 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."


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 immortal. 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 even burned, because he denied 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. Christians later burned libraries, and especially heretical or non-canonical Christian texts. These practices are found throughout human history. One sees what is at stake in these battles over the book: the effort to remove all traces of adversarial ideas and thereby to deprive posterity these works. One violently strikes out at an author when one attacks his or her works; it is a form of violence perhaps more effective than physical attack.

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 media 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.

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 Demetrios 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 CE by Christians, 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 third 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.

Middle Ages

  • Manuscript culture and Illuminated manuscript

By the end of antiquity, between the second century and fourth 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 CE. 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. There therefore existed "scriptoria" (the plural of "scriptorium") in many monasteries, where manuscripts 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. prum nerj.

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).

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 will change the conditions of book production and extend its influence, and the monastic period of the book will come to an end. This revival accompanies the intellectual renaissance of the period. The Manuscript culture outside of the monastery really develops in these university-cities in Europe in this time. It is around the first universities that new structures of production develop: reference manuscripts are used by students and professors for teaching theology and liberal arts. The development of commerce and of the bourgeoisie brings with it a demand for specialized and general texts (law, history, novels, etc.). And it is in this period that writing in the common vernacular develops (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 are also collected in private libraries, which became common in the fourteenth century and fifteenth centuries.

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

Books in the Orient


  • Woodblock printing

Writing on bone, shells, wood and silk existed in China by the second century BC. Paper was invented in China around the first century.

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. In the eleventh century, a blacksmith, Pi Cheng, invented movable type, but woodblock printing remained the main technique for books, possibly because of the poor quality of the ink. The Uyghurs of Turkistan also used movable type, as did the Koreans and Japanese (See History of typography in East Asia).

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.

Movable type

The development of the printing techniques of movable type and 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 fifteenth century. Books printed before January 1, 1501, are called incunables.

List of notable innovations

  • c. 1475: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye was the first book printed in the English language
  • 1476: Grammatica Graeca, sive compendium octo orationis partium, probably the first book entirely in Greek by Constantine Lascaris
  • 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.
  • 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 he first book of sheet music printed from movable 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.
  • 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 bookin the Slovenian language, printed by Primož Trubar.
  • 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
  • 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
  • 1802: New South Wales General Standing Orders was the first book printed in Australia, comprising Government and General Orders issued between 1791 and 1802
  • Aurora Australis, the first book published in Antarctica

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 nineteenth 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. However, electronic books, or e-books, have not had much success to date. One can speculate that the codex form has a long future for everything that requires sequential reading, or for those texts which are as much objects of beauty as they are foundations for information: novels, essays, comic books or art books.

Academic Programs

  • University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Degree in The History of the Book
  • University of Toronto. Graduate Program in Book History / Print Culture (MA, PhD). Link
  • University of London, Institute of English Studies Postgraduate MA in the History of the Book.

Selected Resources

  • (1998-2002) The Cambridge history of the book in Britain. Cambridge UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-57346-7 (v. 3), ISBN 0-521-66182-X (v. 4). Contents: v. 1 ed. Richard Gameson (publication forthcoming 2008), v. 2 eds. Nigel Morgan and Rod Thomson (publication forthcoming 2007), v. 3 1400-1557 eds. Lotte Hellinga and J.B. Trapp, v. 4 1557-1695 eds. John Barnard and D.F. McKenzie, with the assistance of Maureen Bell.
  • (1989-) Histoire de l'édition française. Paris: Fayard : Cercle de la Librairie. ISBN 2-213-02399-9 (v. 1). v. 1-4 ; eds. Roger Chartier and Henri-Jean Martin.
  • (1988-) Histoire des bibliothèques françaises. Paris: Promodis-Éd. du Cercle de la Librairie. ISBN 2-903181-72-1 (v. 1). v. 1-4 ; eds. André Vernet, Claude Jolly, Dominique Varry, Martine Poulain.
  • Chartier, Roger (c2005). Inscrire et effacer : culture écrite et littérature (XIe-XVIIIe siècle). Paris: Gallimard : Le Seuil. ISBN 2-02-081580-X.
  • Darnton, Robert (1985, c1984). The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history. Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-055089-5.
  • Diringer, David (1982). The book before printing : ancient, medieval, and oriental. New York: Dover. ISBN 0-486-24243-9.
  • Eisenstein, Elizabeth (2005). The printing revolution in early modern Europe. Cambridge UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-84543-2, ISBN 0-521-60774-4.
  • Febvre, Lucien; and Henri-Jean Martin (1997). The coming of the book : the impact of printing 1450-1800. London: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-108-2. tr. by David Gerard ; ed. by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and David Wootton ; Note : reprint, other reprints by this publisher 1990 & 1984, originally published (London : N.L.B., 1976) ; Translation of L'apparition du livre.
  • Finkelstein, David (2005). An introduction to book history. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-31442-9, ISBN 0-415-31443-7.
  • (2004-2007) History of the book in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-8943-7 (v. 1), ISBN 080208012X (v. 2), ISBN 978-0-8020-9047-8 (v. 3). Contents: v. 1 eds. Patricia Fleming and Fiona Black (2004), v. 2 eds. Patricia Fleming, Yvan Lamonde, and Fiona Black (2005), v. 3 eds. Carole Gerson and Jacques Michon (2007).
  • Howsam, Leslie (2006). Old Books and New Histories: An orientation to studies in book and print culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-9438-4.
  • Katz, Bill (1998). Cuneiform to computer : a history of reference sources. Lanham Md.: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-3290-9. Series : History of the book, no. 4.
  • Martin, Henri-Jean (c2004). Les métamorphoses du livre. Paris: Albin Michel. ISBN 2-226-14237-1. Series : Itinéraires du savoir.


  • (1970-) Annual bibliography of the history of the printed book and libraries. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. ISSN 0303-5964.
  • (1956-) Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens. Frankfurt am Main: Buchhändler-Vereinigung. ISSN 0066-6327.
  • (1998-) Book History. United States of America: Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Printing. ISSN 1098-7371.
  • (1971-) Quaerendo. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Ltd.. ISSN 0014-9527. Note "A quarterly journal from the low countries devoted to manuscripts and printed books."
  • (1971-) Revue française d'histoire du livre. Bordeaux: Société des bibliophiles de Guyenne. ISSN 0037-92120048-8070.


  • 1. Bernhard Bischoff. Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press 2003 [reprint], p. 11.
  • 2. Leila Avrin. Scribes, Script and Books. The Book Arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance. American Library Association / The British Library 1991, p. 83

External links

  • Centre for the History of the Book
  • Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing
  • History of the Book at the American Antiquarian Society
  • Rare Book School at the University of Virginia
  • Toronto Centre for the Book
  • Dan Traister's Page
  • Development of the Printed Page at the University of South Carolina Library's Digital Collections Page