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From Tablet to Tablet: A History of Books

All-Day Program

Saturday, May 4, 2019 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
Code: 1M2021
Cuneiform Tablet, Sumeria, 2100 B.C. (Photo: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection)

Books have taken a great variety of forms over 4,000 years as they evolved from ancient clay and wax tablets through scrolls and medieval manuscripts to printed books and tablet computers. Yet this long history reveals many commonalities, as humans consistently return to handheld devices that are portable, simple to store, easy to read or to write on, and sometime recyclable.

Steven Galbraith, curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology, chronicles the history of books—as well as their future—by looking at the production and circulation of different writing media and the reasons why technologies endure or grow obsolete. The day is filled with images of artifacts dating from 2300 B.C. to the present. Participants have the opportunity to view items on display from the Cary Collection, including a cuneiform tablet, papyrus fragments, medieval manuscripts, and an early printed book, and a selection of early tablet computers.

9:30–10:45 a.m.  Ancient Books (4000 B.C.–1 A.D.)

Production, use, and impact of the earliest forms of written communication; clay tablets, engravings, papyrus rolls, scrolls, and wax tablets; how ancient “handhelds” influenced later technology, including today’s digital tablets.

11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  The Codex and Medieval Manuscripts (1 A.D.­–1376)

Major developments in first centuries of the Common Era, including the invention of paper and the shift from the scroll to the codex book form; how manuscript books on parchment dominated the Middle Ages in the west.

12:15–1:30 p.m.  Lunch (participants provide their own)

1:30–2:45 p.m.  Printing (1377–1940)

Origins of moveable type in 11th-century China; the invention of printing and the aftermath of Gutenberg’s revolution; the growth of the printing industry.

3–4:15 p.m.  Books in the Digital Age

How digital technology has dramatically changed writing and printing; the future of books; the fate of analog technologies.

Other Connections

As printed books replaced handwritten manuscripts, those then-obsolete pages found a new use: to strengthen the bindings of new volumes. Learn how a process called macro x-ray fluorescence spectrometry is revealing the “hidden libraries” of medieval manuscript fragments concealed in later books.

S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)