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From Manuscript to CD-ROM: A Longer Journey Than We Think?

by Stephen A. Allen on Feb 21, 1997

Books are dead.

That is the provocative claim being made lately about the ever-advancing Computer Age. After all, cyber-data is easier to store, takes up less space and uses fewer natural resources than printed material. Consider that one slender CD-ROM can hold as much information as hundreds of books. Because of this economy, the thinking goes, it’s just a matter of time before books are obsolete.

In a recent issue of American Libraries, John Perry Bartlow — a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation — writes that “books as a practical thing are on their way out.” There are certainly signs that his assessment is correct. The Encyclopedia Britannica is now on the World Wide Web and the Oxford English Dictionary is available on CD-ROM. The Library of Congress has started digitalizing five million of its printed documents; other libraries are following suit.

But are books really an endangered species? Predicting the future is always risky business, but looking at past changes in information storage and distribution may help us guess what’s ahead.

In 15th-century Europe, the printing press affected book production in ways comparable to how today’s computer is transforming communication. With the introduction of the printing press and movable type more than six hundred years ago, books could suddenly be produced faster and with fewer errors than by the old method of manuscript — which literally means “writing by hand.” Yet printed books did not immediately supplant manuscripts; they were still being copied by hand as late as the 18th century. The practice was especially common in monasteries, where book copying was as much a religious exercise as practical work. Manuscripts were even copied by hand from printed editions.

Although printed books eventually won the day, they  remained relatively rare until the 19th century. That is because printing until then was a time-consuming and laborious process: each plate had to be set by hand, and a typical press printed only one page at a time. Books were so expensive that few people could afford them, and widespread illiteracy also kept demand low. As a result, today some early printed books are as hard to find as the manuscripts they replaced.

Things changed dramatically in the 19th century, when new, Industrial Revolution technology made mass production of books possible. In 1814, The Times of London started using a steam-powered press; 33 years later, the high-speed rotary press was introduced. A steep rise in literacy also increased demand for books, which by now were cheaper and easier to find than ever before.

In many ways, today’s situation mirrors the 15th century. Major innovations — the printing press then, the computer now — have forever changed the way information is handled. Yet the new technology is still not universally accessible. Computers are expensive, and some CD-ROMs are too pricey for anyone but universities and public libraries. Also, computer literacy lags behind literacy in general.

If the computer really does stand today where the printing press did six hundred years ago, books still have a long way to go before they fall completely by the wayside. More changes, similar to those that occurred in the 19th century, remain to occur.

For books to be dead, we will have to see many more people knowing how to use computers. As it stands, more and more children are learning how to use computers in school, and both the government and private industry are funding computer learning projects. Even so, universal cyber-literacy is still a long way off.

Another major obstacle is cost. In the 19th century, mass production and high demand resulted in affordable books.  The computer industry needs to undergo a similar revolution, because as long as a cheap paperback goes for $4.99 and a computer costs more than $1,000, digital media will never replace books.

In the end, to paraphrase Mark Twain, it appears that announcements of the book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Major changes are still needed before the computer asserts its undisputed primacy in the field of information transfer. Until then, we shouldn’t be too quick to “write off” the printed word.


Stephen A. Allen is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and a writer for the History News Service.

[The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5692. e-mail: Stephen.A.Allen2@nd.edu]