20 Amazing Facts about the History of the Book

  • Before books were read and stored in their current form, they were actually used in the form of scrolls. The scrolls were pieces of papyrus pounded together. You would hold one section in your left hand, read the open section, then rollout further the section in your right hand to continue reading.


  • A scroll was called volumen in Latin, which comes from the verb “to roll.” It’s also where we get our word “volume,” even though our books no longer retain that shape.


  • Groups of scrolls were often stored in containers similar to hat boxes.


  • Each scroll would have a little descriptive tag hanging from the end of it to identify what the scroll was.


  • The format we’ve come to expect in books developed about the 2nd century CE: the codex.


  • Codex is the Latin word for “tree trunk”—this format was so named because of the wooden boards used to bind the book.


  • The codex survived because it had a number of advantages over the scroll: one could more easily reference any part of the book, and one could write on both sides of the papyrus or parchment (i.e. treated sheepskin).


  • Speaking of parchment, it came into use around the 2nd or 3rd century CE. The Greek city of Pergamum began manufacturing it because Egypt kept a monopoly on papyrus production. (The word “parchment” comes from the phrase “charta Pergamena.”)


  • Writing on skins dates farther back than its use at Pergamum—but it was the Egyptians controlling papyrus production that spurred healthy competition. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages parchment or vellum (generally made from calfskin) were much more obtainable for, say, bookmakers in England, for whom Egypt was quite far away.


  • The word for papyrus in Greek is byblos, named after the city with the highest papyrus production (Biblus). This led to the Greek word for book, biblion—from which we get both our words “book” and “bible.”


  • Cutting and fitting animal skins for a book was tricky. The reason our books tend to be portrait-shaped (longer in height than width) is because that better fit the way the skins were cut most efficiently.


  • Most early books weren’t known by official titles, but by the first few words that started the manuscript. So Moby Dick would actually have been called Call me Ishmael.


  • For much of the Middle Ages, books were as likely to be kept in chests or armoires than in bookshelves. In fact, most books were stored lying flat, rather than standing up vertically as today.


  • This is why many older books often have bits of metal incorporated into the binding (we call them “furniture”). Metal knobs would be placed at the corners of the book’s cover so that the book could be stored lying flat without the rest of the book actually touching the bookshelf. This was important because when it rained the wet would soak into wooden bookshelves, so if the book was directly touching the shelf it would soak in the extra damp.


  • Especially before Gutenberg, but even up through the 18th century, books were extremely valuable commodities. Because of this, places with open access to books (libraries, monasteries) would often chain books to their bookshelves—with enough give to read the book, but not to run off with it.


  • The chain would often be attached to the fore-edge of the book, on the binding, as the most convenient place. Because of this, books were habitually stored spine-in on bookshelves.


  • This is why the edge of the book opposite the spine (the right-hand portion when the book is laid down) is called the fore-edge: it was the edge that faced forward.


  • The spine itself was seen at the time as an unattractive but necessary portion of the book to be hidden, like the hinge of a door.


  • Around the 16th century some books were bound very attractively, including the spine, and books began to be shelved spine-out.   During this time it wouldn’t have been very unusual to see older books shelved spine-in, next to newer books shelved spine-out.


  • Paper came into use in Europe around the 12th century. However it didn’t really take off as the main medium for manuscripts until the 14th century. This was for two reasons:
  1. Paper came to Europe by way of the Arabs, so xenophobia held back a truly open-armed reception.
  2. Sheep and calves were major commodities of lords and other landowners. These two animals were particularly important economically because their skins provided parchment and vellum. Paper cut into these landowners’ profits by taking the market out of their control, which they obviously resisted.


If you liked these facts, I recommend you check out Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf, a history of the physical book from which I cribbed and double checked a few of these points. Enjoy…



9 Comments Add yours

  1. Ken Bellanca says:

    An amazing number of interesting facts in a relatively short post. Thanks…

  2. William says:

    Another outstanding post Rebecca, that will encourage your readers to want to learn more… many thanks!

  3. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy and commented:
    Rebecca Romney holds us down and stuffs our heads with all the knowledge!

  4. Kraig says:

    Rebecca. I have a M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Kentucky (1990). I did it mainly as a “plan B” sort of thing; in case I ever needed a job (i.e., in a library) AND so I could just be around books for one year. My favorite courses were on the history of books and printing. I have to say, you have the BEST job in the whole world. Maybe only second to me – V.P. of Digital Marketing at Hillsdale College. I love your blog! – Kraig

  5. Isaiah Cox says:

    I really enjoyed this blog! I also appreciate that you gave a reference to where I can find more information about the history of books. Now I need to buy the book you referenced. Abebooks here I come, they should give you commission.

    1. Very pleased to hear this. If you read more books because of my posts, I’ve accomplished one of my main goals.

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