In the early Christian era the codex, the bound book format which we are familiar with, superseded papyrus and parchment rolls, offering more effective storage and ease of access; in the 8th Century, minuscule cursive letter forms (using small characters, rather than just capitals) were perfected for both Latin and Greek alphabets, bringing further benefits of compression and speed of copying; and, of course, with the introduction of printing five centuries later, publishing on a truly industrial scale became possible, with massive implications for every aspect of communication.

The role computers play in this area has expanded considerably in recent years . The use of computerised catalogues and indexes of existing collections improved their accessibility, while, for publishers, digitisation virtually eliminated the need for type to be physically set by hand. Now that fast, cheap random access storage space is available to every level of computing application, it is clear that machines can effectively and efficiently store not only information about books and journals, but entire texts as well: written works are published and read by thousands, without using a single sheet of paper or drop of ink. These developments are already proving to be an important milestone in the history of the "written" word.

Even so, it seems unlikely that the proliferation of electronic texts will ever completely eradicate the urge to keep that hard copy "just in case". It is hard to believe that there will ever not be a place for books in the world of the student or casual reader: there is still a long way to go to make a handheld computing device as attractive or cheap as a paperback book. But now that so many words, not to mention sounds and pictures, are readily available in digitised form, the idea of such an encyclopædic portable, electronic book as, say, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is considerably less strange and wonderful than it was even a decade ago.

The above write-up treats books as concepts. Let me get a little more detailed about the history of books as physical objects. The paperbacks and hardbacks we are so familiar with today are the product of evolutionary change, fads and fashions, and the random mixing of cultural influences. The history of the modern book is primarily a European one, though many of the techniques and materials were invented elsewhere.

Evolution of the Codex

In ancient Greece and Rome, literature was stored in scrolls. Today, we tend to picture scrolls as unrolling from top to bottom, with the text in a continuous line. Like this.

    /   \             \
   | |  |             |
   |  \ /             /
   |                 |
   | writing writing |
   | writing writing |
   | writing writing |
   | writing writing |
   |   ______________|
   |  / \             \
   | |__|             |
    \   /             /

That's not the way it worked. Rather, scrolls were held horizontally, and rolled up on the left as they were unrolled on the right. Text was written in blocks separated by columns of white space. Although this method wasted a little papyrus, it was much easier to write on and read from a scroll that wasn't unravelling on one's lap.

  __                                 __
 /  \                               /  \
|    |_____________________________|    |
|    |                             |    |
|    | one block of  a second blo  |    |
|    | writing one   ck of writin  |    |
|    | block of wri  g a second b  |    |
|    | ting one blo  lock of writ  |    |
| __ | ck of writin  ing a second  | __ |
|/| \| g  one block  block of wri  |/ |\|
| |_/  of writing..  ting........   \_| |


Scrolls are hard to store - they squash easily. When you put them in tubes to stop that, the resultant cylinders were a pain to stack. Sometime in the first century after Christ, someone had the brilliant idea of folding the scrolls in the white margins. Fan-folding a scroll makes a rectangular block, which almost invites stitching along one side.

 ¦ ____________
 ¦             \
 ¦ ____________/
 ¦             \
 ¦ ____________/


The next development was to write on both sides of each page, and fold it into signatures for stitching. The advantage of that approach was that they needed smaller pieces of whatever material they made the books out of. This meant that rather than importing expensive papyrus from Egypt, they could use parchment from a nearby sheep. This was the classic first-century codex, the ancestor of every book on your shelves.

Books Through the Centuries

Book design took centuries to change from the codex form into something more familiar. Bookbinders tend to be conservative even now - in medieval times, they were even more wary of new techniques which might threaten the sacred duty of the preservation of knowledge. Different geographical areas tried things out at different times, and practices tended to spread slowly from centres of innovation. Still, a general summary of European book design in each century shows the slow evolution of the modern book. (All dates are AD.)

Source: The British Library Guide to Bookbinding, by PJM Marks, The British Library Press, 1998.

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