Who Invented Books? From the First Library to Virtual Bookshelf
Nowadays, literacy is often taken for granted by many. We find ourselves constantly surrounded by written language, which makes it easy to overlook the fact that not too long ago, the majority of people were simply unable to read or write. You might ask yourself questions, like who invented books and how the book publishing industry came to be.
Though physical books are still popular, in the 2020s we are transitioning from physical paper books to the realm of virtual libraries. Now you can replace your cumbersome book collection with a portable virtual bookshelf that fits right in your pocket, all without compromising on quality! Moving from ancient scrolls to digital age documents available to everyone is a fantastic achievement, and the technical progress keeps on accelerating.
But let’s start from the beginning, and work our way through the history of the books together!
The History of Books
Books in Pre-history Era
By definition, history is essentially what has been documented in writing, the books are what defines history, and the era known as pre-history concludes once written sources become available. Books came into existence when individuals began penning their thoughts and ideas for others to peruse. When we ask who invented books, we first need to consider who invented writing – and many different civilizations did so independently of each other.
In the early stages, books did not resemble the codex format that we typically imagine as a “book.” Instead, they originated as papyrus scrolls or even sacred texts inscribed on clay tablets. Unfortunately, only a small number of these ancient artifacts have managed to survive to this day.
In ancient times, the concept of paper books was unfamiliar; the likes of the ancient Egyptians and other civilizations relied on papyrus scroll rolls. Later on, book authors turned to parchment, a writing material derived from the delicate skin of young animals. The invention of the printing press and the entire printed book had to wait for millennia…
Hand-Copied Books in Ancient Times
The history of the book is the history of the written word. Throughout ancient times, numerous civilizations used the written word to simply complement their rich oral traditions. Poems, legends, and religious texts were entrusted to human memory and passed on from master to student, be it a priest or a bard. However, it was only the more advanced cultures that embraced literacy and chose to inscribe these sacred texts onto tangible mediums. Most of the documents of that time were originally written just in case the priests weren’t available and many believed in the superiority of human memory over the written runes.
During those ancient eras, literacy was far from commonplace. In ancient Egypt, it was an exclusive skill possessed by scribes and priests who meticulously transcribed religious texts using hieroglyphics. Books began as a way to store knowledge – and the early hieroglyphics began as images representing the words, and later, the syllables. For example, the sign for ‘ox’ was used in words that contained that syllable. For centuries, the writing system of ancient Egypt was seen as an enigmatic riddle, until the day when the hieroglyphics were finally deciphered.
Over an extensive period, ancient Egyptians shifted to various systems of writing. To establish a more efficient system for book publishing and allow for swifter reading, other civilizations had to develop more fluid writing systems. The Chinese writing system, for instance, still relies on syllabic writing, and many of the ideograms created in ancient times continue to be used today! Other civilizations established alphabetic writing, where each symbol represented a single sound or a family of sounds.
In Ancient Rome, people began crafting the earliest mass-produced books. Specially educated, literate slaves were trained to transcribe what they heard from a person reading around onto a continuous roll of papyrus scrolls. While this method was not without flaws, it was the earliest example of the publishing industry and played a significant role in ensuring that many important books endured and survived to the present age.
Throughout centuries, writing held an aura of sanctity, and access to books was confined to the privileged elites. Reading for leisure or education was very rare. However, the ancient Greeks, also known as Hellenes, played a pivotal role in changing this book’s culture. They embarked on the practice of documenting poems such as the Illiad and the Odyssey. Additionally, they recognized the importance of education for young men and sought to promote literacy among the free citizens.
From Socrates to Aristotle, philosophers and poets emerged, leaving behind many important books. These literary treasures would later be transcribed by Arabic scholars during the Middle Ages, and subsequently by Christian monks in their dedicated efforts to preserve knowledge.
The pursuit of knowledge and the preservation of written works gradually led to the establishment of the first libraries. These early repositories of knowledge served as vital centers for intellectual growth and served to democratize access to books.
In ancient Greece, the famous Library of Alexandria stands as a testament to the importance placed on collecting and preserving books. Founded in the 3rd century BCE, this magnificent institution aimed to gather all the knowledge of the world under one roof. Scholars, researchers, and curious minds flocked to this renowned library, eager to explore its vast collection of scrolls and manuscripts. Rich people and scholars all over the world began creating the first library.
Later on, in the Middle Ages libraries held copies of ancient scrolls, religious writing with some works on proto-scientific natural philosophy. Monasteries kept their libraries, but rich people also held their own. The Malatestiana Library, founded in 1452 in Cesena in today’s Italy is considered to be the first public library, thanks to the growing Renaissance culture of books and education. In the Islamic world, many public libraries were open to anyone, to propagate religious education.
Evolution of Books in Middle Ages
As antiquity drew to a close, the book scroll made way for the codex, a revolutionary format of books consisting of sheets pasted between two wooden covers. The codex offered more ease of browsing, and even in today’s digital age, it remains the standard form of a book. Additionally, reading speed improved with the arrival of punctuation, absent in ancient Roman texts, which lacked periods, lowercase letters, and question marks.
During the medieval period in Europe, secular knowledge was not given high priority. Nevertheless, many secular writings of ancient philosophers and poets managed to endure through the diligent efforts of copyist monks. Living in seclusion from the rest of society, these monks devoted their lives to prayer, scholarly pursuits, and manual labor. Among their notable accomplishments was the creation of beautifully illustrated illuminated manuscripts, particularly of religious works like the Bible or theological commentaries.
The rise of educational institutions, notably universities, in medieval Europe led to the proliferation of new books, which were primarily copied for student use. Alongside religious and theological knowledge, students were required to study the classics, including the works of revered ancient authorities like Aristotle and Socrates. The book publishing industry could develop, even before the printing press.
Arabic scholars played a crucial role in preserving vast amounts of ancient knowledge and disseminating it to Europe, often facilitated by Jewish merchants. In addition to the writings of ancient academics like Avicenna, the Muslim culture also introduced Europeans to Arabic numerals. Furthermore, Europeans were introduced to paper manufacturing, originating from the Chinese in the 9th century CE, which made its way to Europe around the 12th century.
The Invention of Printing Press
The printing presses revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge and paved the way for the mass production of books. One of the earliest examples of printing technology can be traced back to ancient China, where woodblock printing was developed as early as the 2nd century CE. This technique involved carving individual characters or illustrations onto wooden blocks, which were then inked and pressed onto paper to create multiple copies. Diamond Sutra, a sacred Buddhist text, is considered to be the first book printed in the world, centuries ahead of the Gutenberg Bible.
The invention of movable type in China during the 11th century further advanced the printing process. While the Middle Ages Europe still relied on illuminated manuscripts, the Chinese produced thousands of books printed per year. Movable type allowed individual characters to be rearranged and reused, significantly increasing the speed and efficiency of printing. This innovation laid the foundation for Johannes Gutenberg’s groundbreaking invention in Europe centuries later.
In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, and inventor, introduced the printing press with movable type to Europe. We can’t give the exact date, but the earliest books were printed before 1501. His invention revolutionized the production of books by enabling faster and more cost-effective replication of texts. Gutenberg’s printing press used individual metal letterforms that could be arranged, inked, and pressed onto paper, offering a significant improvement over the laborious process of hand-copying manuscripts. The first published book was the Bible, in Latin translation. Apart from the Gutenberg bible, the first printed books in Europe included other religious texts – which gave way to the Protestant Reformation.
It didn’t take long for other books to be printed, outside of religious work. The secular book publishing industry flourished – with historical books, fairy tales, calendars, and encyclopedias. The literacy rate rose in the next two hundred years from around 10% to about 60% in England. Oxford University Press, tied to an established university began to print books not just for the students. In Islamic countries, due to a specific system of writing and resistance from religious scribes, the Arabic movable type developed only later in the 18th century.
The flourishing industry and industrial revolution required abandoning parchment and shifting to paper. Paper is a natural material – wasps build their nests from chewed wooden pulp. What’s important is that new steam paper mills were invented and mass-produced books began to be popular even among the commoners.
Another notable advancement in printing technology occurred in the late 19th century with the invention of the Linotype machine. Developed by Ottmar Mergenthaler, the Linotype machine automated the typesetting process by allowing operators to quickly assemble lines of text using a keyboard. The machine would then create a metal mold, or “line o’ type,” which was used to cast an entire line of type in a single piece. This innovation, together with automated steam printing presses, greatly accelerated the printing process and made typesetting more efficient.
Book Publishing Industry in Modern Era
In the 19th century, more and more people became literate, in part due to growing and developing educational systems. One important change was the invention of the typewriter, which made it easy for people to write and print their documents.
The 1970s and 80s saw the arrival of personal computers and home computers. Word processors and printers came out, which changed the way documents were made and put together even more. When word processing software came out, people could write, edit, and format texts on their computers. Computer-based word processors could also serve as DTP software allowing someone to write and print out their books. Thanks to mimeographs or Xerox, you could distribute your own printed book or zine anywhere.
With the rise of desktop publishing and online virtual libraries in the 21st century, these changes were made available to a larger number of people. People could design and lay out their books, magazines, newsletters, and other publications with desktop publishing software, and publish them online with a single click. This opened up publishing to more people and made it easier and cheaper for authors and small publishers to get their work out to the public. You can learn more about the basics of the self-publishing industry in our guide.
Another new idea that came out of this time was hypertext. Hypertext made it possible to move through connected texts in ways other than in order, making information more accessible and easier to find. Now, readers could easily move from one section or chapter to another, getting the information they needed quickly and easily.
Also, the Internet has had a huge impact on how books are made and sold. The costs of making, storing, and sending things have gone down a lot because of the Internet. Now, authors can self-publish their works digitally and reach readers all over the world without the help of gatekeepers in traditional publishing. Online marketplaces and e-commerce platforms have made it even easier to sell and distribute digital and print-on-demand books. This gives readers more access to books and more options.
Project Gutenberg, named after the German inventor of the printing press, aims to preserve books in the public domain, using the digital format. Thanks to various initiatives like this, you could say that the Internet is the largest library in the world, larger than the British Library and Library of Congress.
The Birth of Digital Books
E-books have become a prominent feature of the 21st-century book landscape, transforming the way people read and access written content. One of the key players in the e-book industry is Amazon, with its widely popular Kindle e-reader and e-book platform. The introduction of e-books has brought numerous advantages to readers, including the convenience of carrying an entire virtual library in a single device.
In addition to the Kindle e-reader, Amazon’s e-book platform has provided a platform for self-published authors to reach a wide audience. Through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), authors can independently publish and distribute their works as e-books, leveling the playing field and opening up opportunities for aspiring writers. This democratization of publishing has allowed authors to share their stories with readers around the world, while readers benefit from a diverse range of e-books across various genres and niches.
After that, platforms like Publuu introduced the concept of interactive flipbooks, which offer a dynamic and engaging reading experience. Books began to combine the availability of e-books with the feeling of printed books in your hands, just like in the example below:
Publuu’s online flipbook example
View more online flipbook examples
With flipbooks, e-books came to life with interactive features such as embedded videos, animated gifs, clickable links, and interactive animations. Moreover, they offer the advantage of being easily accessible on various devices, from computers to tablets and smartphones. This accessibility ensures that readers can enjoy the interactive features and rich content of e-books anytime, anywhere.
New Kind of Library – Virtual Bookshelf
The most recent invention in the history of books is without a doubt Virtual Bookshelf. It enables publishers and authors to create digital libraries, providing a visually appealing and highly cohesive way to showcase their collection of beautiful flipbooks. Thanks to the intuitiveness of the Publuu platform, publishers can easily select and customize their virtual shelves, creating a personalized and professional way to present their flipbooks.
Now, publishers can arrange flipbooks in a visually appealing layout recreating the experience of browsing a physical library. They can also customize the look of their virtual bookshelves by arranging book covers and choosing a layout and background from a variety of design options and themes to match their brand or aesthetic preferences.
Virtual Bookshelf is not only an attractive display of flipbooks, but also provides convenient access to the entire collection. Readers can easily navigate through the bookshelf, view cover images, and tap flipbooks they want to read further. This user-friendly interface improves the overall user experience and encourages readers to interact with the flipbooks on the shelf.
As for now, history of books ends at that point, but we will surely see some amazing new inventions in the near future.
The history of the book has come a long way from ancient clay tablets to the digital age has been one of remarkable transformation. From the origins of sacred texts engraved on clay tablets to the revolutionary invention of the printing press, the pursuit of knowledge and the preservation of written works have shaped the course of human history. Libraries became beacons of intellectual development, and the codex replaced the scroll, improving reading speed and accessibility.
The advent of printing presses ushered in a new era of mass production, democratizing access to books and fostering the growth of literacy. But it wasn’t until the digital age that a new chapter opened up, with e-books and virtual libraries opening up unlimited possibilities. With platforms like Publuu offering interactive flipbooks, readers can now embark on a journey of immersive content, seamlessly combining the accessibility of e-books with the tactile experience of printed books.
While the traditional book are still popular, books of the future will be unquestionably multimedia, often existing as a combination of music, words, and graphics on a computer screen.