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Evolution of the Modern Book: From Clay Tablets to E-Books

Updated on May 17, 2013

The Evolution of the Book

In The Evolution of the Book, Frederick G.Kilgour defines "book" as: "a storehouse of human knowledge intended for dissemination in the form of an artifact that is portable -- or at least transportable -- and that contains arrangements of signs that convey information."

Why Books Have Changed

According to Kilgour, for each major innovation in the book, five elements were necessary: societal need for information, technological knowledge and experience, organizational experience and capability, the capability of integrating a new form into existing information systems, and economic viability.

History of the Book

Over the last five thousand years, there have been four different transformations of that lovely little item we know as a “book.” Societal needs and technological innovations helped shape these transformations and continue to do so, as we move into an age of war between the “old fashioned book” and its digital descendant. Just like this change in our current understandings of what defines a book, each manifestation of the “book” has changed drastically in shape and structure. From the clay tablets of 2500 B.C. to the little Kindle of today, every version of this house of human knowledge is nearly unrecognizable from the last.

As their forms change, so do the methods of production with each new invention and technological advancement. Over the book’s history from a tablet to a codex to its electronic form, there have been three major transformations: first with machine printing from caste type (1455-1814), then nonhuman power with presses and typecasting machines (1814-1970), and finally with computerized composition.

Toward the beginning of its production, the more original forms of the book were long-lasting formats, used for thousands of years before its next step in its evolution. As the speed of production increased, its format changed as well as the frequency of this change.


A store of several thousand tablets has come to be known as an archive because of the amount of administrative records they contain, which could sometimes amount to about 95 percent. The most famous collection is the Ashurbanipal Library, which housed nearly twenty thousand tablets that now lie in the British Museum.

Clay Tablets

The origins of writing and the beginnings of its history begin in Southern Mesopotamia. By 3400 B.C. the earliest cities arose, along with the need to record and transfer information as trade, administration, and government grew.

There are three basic ways of writing. One is to draw a picture of the word it represents, known as a pictogram. Another is to use one sign, or several put together, to symbolize the sound of a word, which is known as syllabic and only requires a few hundred different signs, whereas pictograms require thousands. The third basic type of writing, called alphabetic writing, involves assembling the sounds of words from just a couple of dozen signs.

By 2500 B.C., the clay-tablet system was mature and involved three major components: manual writing, clay technology, and the organization of collections of tablets. Its advantage lie in the ease with which would could hold it in one hand or lay it on a flat surface. No one knows for sure how they made their tablets but one proposal is that the Sumerians repeatedly washed clay in water, let it settle in a vat, then strained it to achieve a fine grained clay, which was written on while damp and then allowed to dry or was baked in a kiln.

With the rise of West Semitic alphabet-like syllabaries in the second millennium B.C. came the decline of the clay tablet after its two and a half millennia reign of stability. In 1100 B.C., the Greeks took over the Phoenician alphabet, modified it by converting four consonants to vowels and adding five new characters, vastly improving efficiency and writing. This efficiency greatly improved writing but the inability to produce curved lines on moist clay made the tablets useless and papyrus much more desirable, causing the tablet’s extinction by the second century A.D.


Ancient Texts

Unlike clay tablets, papyrus rolls are relatively rare because it can be more easily destroyed.

Papyrus Rolls

As the Egyptian kingdom grew with the unification of lower and upper Egypt around 3100 B.C. under King Narmer, so did the need to keep records for farming, administration, and many other needs. This led to the development of hieroglyphic writing and the invention of papyrus rolls by the Egyptians. The earliest known papyrus papers are two unwritten rolls from a tomb dated the thirteenth century B.C. For fifteen hundred years, both the Egyptians and the Greeks used this form of writing until parchment came around about the beginning of the sixth century B.C.

The system for papyrus roll technology has five major components: papyrus rolls to write on, inks for writing, palettes to keep the inks in, rushes to apply them, bookselling, and archives. It is a coarse paper made from plant fibers. The only difference between papyrus and modern paper is that the papyrus plant only partially defibers it, whereas modern paper is completely defibered.


Byzantium made two major contributions to the evolution of the book: minuscule writing and multiple thread binding.

Greco-Roman Contribution in the Book’s Evolution

The biggest accomplishments of the Greeks were the invention of a complete alphabet and minuscule writing. Efficiency and accuracy were improved with this alphabet while minuscule writing helped cope with the higher demand for books. Furthermore, the Greeks developed parchment, pens, and ink.

Unlike its predecessor, papyrus rolls, parchment could be cut into large sizes, it was flexible, durable, and received ink better. By the seventh century, it pretty much took over as book material and knocked papyri out of the game and remained in that top spot until the fifteenth century.

While reading and writing were basic for Roman elementary schooling, it wasn’t until the forty-five year reign of Augustus that cultural life flourished and an organized book trade was established, along with libraries. This brought in a whole new kind of commerce and led to the creation of three scholarly libraries in the third century: the Royal Library of Alexandria (c. 284 B.C.), the library at Serapeum (c. 246 B.C.), and the Pergamum Library (c. 220 B.C.).

In the end, Greco-Roman innovations made book production more efficient and available along with all of the other inventions that led to the next part of the book’s evolution: the codex.

An Egyptian of the twentieth century B.C. would have recognized, if they could see it, a Greek or Roman papyrus roll book of the time of Christ. Furthermore, a Greek or Roman of the second century A.D., familiar with the then new codex, would have no trouble recognizing our books of the twentieth century.

The Codex

For two thousand years, the codex was here to stay as the need for readily available information rose alongside of Christianity. One of its precursors was the wooden tablet, which were folded together into an accordion structure around the early second century A.D.

When it came to inventing the actual codex, there was one problem that needed to be solved: how to make sturdy pages that were also pliable. In the end, the solution was simply to fold a papyrus sheet (or a whole stack of them) into a single gathering to produce multiple leaves. This was used well into the second, third, and fourth centuries.

Eventually, the codex was not only bought as a way of learning but also as a piece to decorate one’s home. The only way to make copies were to transcribe them and everything was done by hand. With help from Muslim knowledge, papermaking, writing, and book production, as bookshops and libraries were much more prevalent in Islam than in the Christian West or Byzantium. The mechanized manufacture of paper from cloth rags that was developed there helped to create cheap, flexible and writing mediums and make possible Gutenburg’s famous invention.

The Gutenberg Press
The Gutenberg Press | Source

A Demonstration of the Gutenberg Printing Press

The Gutenberg Bible
The Gutenberg Bible | Source

Printing and Book Production

Let’s fast forward now a few centuries to the end of the fourteenth century through the fifteenth. The need for books was considerably high with the expansion of existing universities alongside the renewal of spirituality in Europe. Twelve hundred years after the introduction of the codex, mechanical production through printing presses helps to mark the beginning of our modern book.

The earliest example of print making is called xylography, which involved using three single image prints from wood blocks with dark brown ink on cut wooden blocks. They were inexpensive and religious in character and mostly portrayed devotional scenes that were put up on walls at home for contemplation.

Block printing produces a print from an inverted image, much like cast type. An artist would draw the image or type, and then set it on the block inverted to the left or right, trace it, and then imprint the image onto a surface after carving the block with a knife.

The earlier form of printing only helped to increase the need for more and more books as they became even more available and efficiency in the process of producing them increased. Out of five men, Johannes Gutenburg was the only successful developer of a technique to mechanically produce multiple copies of books.

One major component of his invention is the way in which it presses the paper onto the inked type without it smudging, with the Gutenburg Bible as strong evidence of the sophistication of his device. Not only did he produce a new press, but he also helped develop cast type and printing ink. This helped lead to the explosion of book making and printing across Europe and new inventions for the book such as title pages, page numbers, and illustrations.

The Modern Book and Its Future

From then on, production of books continued to grow and become the item we know, recognize, and love today. Now there is a new step in the book’s evolution and, interestingly enough, it is being fought more than the other steps ever were, if they were at all. For every part of its rise to the modern book, the ease of accessibility and the use of new technologies has been key in its development. It seems inevitable, then, that the book would turn electronic with the rise in computers and other technological usage today so that it is more accessible.

© 2012 Lisa


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    • 2patricias profile image


      7 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      This is really interesting - you've provided a wealth of information about the history of the book.

      I have a house full of books and enjoy reading. I was recently given a kindle, and have found that I can carry it with me more easily than a book, and read when I am waiting for trains, etc.

      However, I still like to browse in bookshops and second hand shops. Somehow it is not the same scanning down a list on the computer - no chance to pick up the books, read the back notes, etc. I know the on-line merchants try to replicate the experience, but it's really not the same.

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 

      7 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      A very interesting history, well-written. I agree that something is lost in translating a book to digital, but much is gained, as well. I have a kindle, which I love and use often, but I still love books, and I don't think printed books are going away any time soon.

    • LisaKoski profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from WA

      That's a good point about my title. Definitely going to fix that. Thanks for reading :)

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 

      7 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      This is a fascinating hub, although not quite what I expected. I recently bought a tablet to use as an e-reader and that's what I expected to see! LOL

      Much more interesting than a hub on electronic tablets - thank you.

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 

      7 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Thank you for your interesting History outline. I love books, reading them, touching them, libraries, learning about them, working in libraries (which I did once for a few happy years). I'm writing a book! My bedroom is lined with books. I know I will eventually read from a Kindle (occasionally), but all that history in my hands, in my book, it's too much to let go of!

      Your Hub is truly very good and so well organized and handsome to look at.

      Looking forward to reading more Hubs and getting to know you more now!.

      Voting etc.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      7 years ago from Nepal

      Your analysis of book is very informative. Had there been no records of words, we would never have had our history.

    • Green Lotus profile image


      7 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Well written and informative. One thing is certain, the modern book will continue to evolve. What will see in another 50-100 years? Perhaps some kind of virtual reality experience? I hope not. Sounds too scary :o

    • LisaKoski profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from WA

      I agree there are a lot of things an e-book just doesn't have that makes regular old books special. However, in this day and age they definitely have their place for those who like to get reading materials in seconds rather than waste gas driving to the store and for those who lack the storage space. There are those who think regular books are going to disappear but I hope not. I think too many people love them too much to let them go extinct.

      Thanks for reading!

    • lulusmith profile image


      7 years ago from England

      This is a very interesting hub! I must admit though, I really dislike all this Kindle stuff, I much prefer to hold a book in my hands, I think you don't quite get the same experience from a piece of electronic equiptment. Certainly doesn't have that fantastic smell!


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