A Brief History of Books

How books went from handwritten scrolls to digitized publications

By Google Arts & Culture

Still Life with Bible (October 1885 - 1885) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Books have been a part of our daily lives since ancient times. They have been used for telling stories, archiving history, and sharing information about our world. Although the ways that books are made have evolved over time, whether handwritten, printed on pages, or digitized online, their need remains timeless. Take a read through this brief history of books...

Torah case and scroll, Egypt, 19th-20th century (late 19th century - early 20th century) by UnknownThe Jewish Museum, London

Ancient scrolls

One of the first ‘books’ can be seen in the creation of ancient scrolls, going as far back as the 4th millennium BCE.

These rolled up manuscripts were often made using a Papyrus plant and when unraveled, could be between 14 to 52 feet wide.

Boethius, De institutione arithmetica Boethius, De institutione arithmetica (c. 845)Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Books to-go

More similar to the style of books we know today, the Romans created some of the first codices from as early as the 1st century CE. The codex was more durable and compact than a scroll as it was made with parchment paper and bound with wooden covers.

As it was easy to carry, this style of book became popular with the rise of Christianity – perfect for bringing your biblical texts on-the-go.

Geumgang banya baramil gyeong (Diamond Sutra on the Perfection of Wisdom)Cheongju Early Printing Museum

The oldest printed book in the world

As the popularity of books was increasing, the world turned to a more efficient way of making them… printing!

The world’s earliest printed book is the Diamond Sutra and although the exact date it was made is uncertain, it has been thought to have been created between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE.

Boston type manual printing press by Hellenic SteelMunicipal Museum of the Kalavritan Holocaust

The power of print

Fast forward to the 15th century and printing had gone mainstream, all thanks to the invention of the printing press in 1439 CE by Johannes Gutenberg.

This mechanical device allowed for the printing of books, newspapers, and pamphlets to be brought to the masses.

A French art dictionary purchased by Xu BeihongCAFA Art Museum

The first dictionary

Another ‘first’ for books was the first dictionary, created in 1582 CE by Richard Mulcaster.

The Oxford dictionary today has over 273,000 words in alphabetical order, but Mulcaster’s “Elementarie” put together 8,000 words in a non-alphabetical list – it might be difficult trying to find a word in that!

God (2007) by Douglas CouplandVancouver Art Gallery

Modern bindings

From scrolls, to the codex, and now to glue-bound books – printing really has come a long way. The development of glued books said “so long” to sewing as this method was quicker and cheaper.

In 1935 CE, for only six pence each, you could pick up one of Penguin Books first glued paperbacks.

Video game:MS-DOS Frederik Pohl's Gateway (1992)The Strong National Museum of Play


But what could make printing even more cost efficient and environmentally friendly at the same time? Print-on-demand.

When science-fiction writer Frederik Pohl imagined a world with “machines which would produce a book to your order, anywhere in the world” in 1966 CE, he might not have anticipated that this would become a reality only a few years later.

E-Reader:Franklin Rocket eBook Reader (1999) by Franklin Electronic PublishersThe Strong National Museum of Play

Inventing the eBook

It was not only print-on-demand that transformed the future of books but the first digitization of texts by Project Gutenberg in 1971 CE brought reading into the internet era.

This project continues to share over 60,000 eBooks today and many other online reading resources have developed since to keep up with the digital age.

Google 1998Sound and Music

Google Books

One of the most used online reading resources today is Google Books, which is almost as old as Google itself.

In 1996, Google co-founders supported the Stanford Digital Library Technologies Project and by 2002, Google Books was officially launched as a secret project to start digitizing books all over the world – it's definitely not a secret anymore!

History of the ancient Lithuanian nation (9 volumes) (1835/1841) by Teodoras NarbutasLithuanian Art Fund

From scrolls to eBooks, the way we read may have evolved over time but the significance of books in our lives remains timeless.

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