Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Form of the Book Has Changed Before

I have started listening to Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles on compact disc. It is too early to write a review, but a couple of things on disc one jumped out at me.

In telling about his experiences in the Widener Library at Harvard, Battles mentions in his introduction how books were produced in the early sixteenth century. After printing the signatures, books were sold uncut and unbound. The buyer would then do what he (mostly men) wanted. A student might just read the sheets and divide them among his collegues. Some might bind the works simply. The wealthy might bind the book in expensive leathers with gold leafing and precious stones adorning the cover. The works might even be bound with other works. I wonder whether with electronic books in the twenty-first century we have created a similar situation. Buyers can purchase books or parts of books, load them onto a variety of reading devices, mark them up with notes, merge works electronically, print them if necessary, and bind them if desired.

In the first chapter, which is about the ancient libraries in Alexandria, Battle says that some scholars came to libraries to make their own copies of books. There were no photocopiers or scanners. No one posted copyright notices. Of course, there was no commercial book markets either. Can you imagine copying books by hand? Did anyone ever check that the copies had proper citations?

I think I will enjoy this book. More later.

Battles: Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.

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