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Book Art Resources: Brief History of the Book Format

A guide to selected research resources about book art.

On how the book format has influenced contemporary artists' books

While most histories of artists' books focus primarily on the last 40 years, I believe the history of the book itself is just as crucial. Most histories focus on the Western world, but the East has contributed some very important techniques that every contemporary artist, in fact every person, uses.

Contemporary artists' books could never have come into being without many centuries of experimentation with form, technique and materials. As soon as people began to draw and then write, they wanted a surface to work on that was more portable than a wall in a cave or other dwelling. The book as we know it took many centuries and the combined knowledge of several cultures to be born.

In the East, books are thought to have been in use as early as 3000 years ago. [14] Bamboo, wood or palm leaves of equal length and width were fastened together with a string run through a hole in each section. These blind books resemble the venetian blinds many people use in their homes today. Eastern cultures also used a fan structure to record and store information in a specific order. The method is similar to the blind in the use of slats of equal width and length, but they are now held together at a fixed point (not along a string or cord). This point can be at the end or the middle of the grouping. The Chinese also used the scroll form.

In 105 AD the Chinese invented paper. This material was flexible and strong. A new form of book was created, the concertina or fold book. Here one sheet, or several glued into one, was folded onto itself. It could be read by flipping each fold (like pages) or opened to see the entire length. The book had hard covers on the ends to protect the paper. The Chinese also knew how to print multiple images from a single source (woodblock) and had experimented with movable type (ceramic) several hundred years before the Western world. [15]

In the West, clay tablets were made as early as 4000 BC in Mesopotamia. [16] Then the Egyptians created a way to make a writing surface with the papyrus plant. These sheets were light compared to the clay, but were too brittle to be folded, and thus were rolled into scrolls for storage. The Greeks and Romans adopted the use of papyrus. The Greeks and Romans also wrote on thin pieces of wood covered with a smooth coat of wax. These surfaces were reusable by heating and smoothing the wax. The Romans drilled holes along one side of the tablets and linked them together with cord or leather. This is the birth of the Western codex, the form of most books we use everyday.

When the supply of papyrus (only available in Egypt) became scarce in Europe, a new writing surface was created in Turkey: parchment. Parchment is sheep or goat skin scraped to be smooth and thin. If calfskin is used it produces a superior product and is called vellum. This material was foldable and a new way to bind was developed. Now groups of pages were folded and nested together, holes punched through the fold, and the sections sewn together. Stiff wooden covers were used to keep the parchment from warping. Now the codex form is even closer to present day.

Paper took a long time to reach the Western world. First it came to the Arabs around 800 AD and to Egypt in 900 AD. From there the knowledge went to Spain around 1100 AD and then to Italy in the late 1200's. (In 1276, Fabriano, Italy, began its still world famous paper production.) Wide spread use of paper was not until the 1400's. [17]

With the wide spread use of paper, books became cheaper and thus more accessible. The invention of movable type made with metal and used with a press in about 1450 by Johann Guternberg in Mainz, Germany, set the stage for the modern era. Many copies of the same work could be made easily and be affordable to people other than the rich. With the rise of public education, and thus literacy, books were in demand and now printed in the vernacular (not just classical Latin).

During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries a wave of inventions pushed the book closer to its modern production methods. In France in the early 1700's a way to make paper from wood fibers, instead of cotton or rag, was invented. The new paper did not last as long, but was quicker to produce. The age of the machine changed bookmaking forever. A papermaking machine was invented around 1800. Machines that set the type as well as print it were invented and constantly improved. Then a machine that actually bound the pages and attached the cover was invented. There was no longer a need for hand craftspeople, but for those who could run and repair the machinery. [18] The book format became about speed and the lowest cost of production.

In the late 1800's the Arts and Crafts Movement protested the cheaply made item and promoted handcrafted works. William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in England to produce beautiful, well-crafted books as part of this movement. From here we can easily see how the livre d'artiste comes into the history of the book and leads to contemporary artists' books.

Contemporary artists' books combine the Eastern and Western traditions. Artists' books often combine several of the basic forms of the book, just as they often combine several media. The history of the book was a struggle to find the best format and materials to create a method that is cheap and easy to produce. While artists' books work to defy the codification of the book format, the experimentation throughout history can now inspire contemporary artists in their exploration of new ways to use the book.

This was only a brief run down. For further information on the history of the book and related topics:



14. Kropper, Jean G. Handmade Books and Cards. (Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, 1997), 2.
15. Ibid., 6.
16. Ibid., xii.
17.Levarie, Norma. The Art and History of Books. (New York: Da Capo, 1968), 67.
18. Kropper, 9.

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