The Death of Gutenberg

Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468)
Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gutenberg press brought books to the masses. Before the Gutenberg press and the movable type that allowed for it, books had to be painstakingly written by hand. Rooms of monks with quills in hand would write the entire Bible one copy at a time. Only valuable books would ever be reproduced. Who really could afford a book of mere fiction.

With the printing press books could be reproduced much more easily. It is true that the early Gutenberg presses were cumbersome and fairly slow. It still took much work to set up the type for a single page. Once the page was set up though, it could be printed up many times before the next page was set up.

Eventually the technology of these early presses led to more efficient presses until we developed the technolgical marvels of the present day. Now we take books for granted and even more, we take newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals for granted.

Actually a lot of reading materials have moved to the electronic medium. Many people now get much of their news by way of either television or the Internet. The traditional periodicals have embraced the Internet.

How is this leading to “The Death of Gutenberg”?

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United St...

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United States Library of Congress, demonstrating printed pages as a storage medium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A book sitting on your shelf will remain a book sitting on your shelf. Except for the wear and tear of time, the words written on the page will not be changed. Can we say the same about a book that is stored on some server in some computer at some undisclosed location in the world?

Old classics could be subtly edited and censored even as we turn the electronic page. The books we read today might not be the books are children read tomorrow. In fact the news story we read today might be different when we show it to a friend tomorrow morning.

Somebody might decide that Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are just too rough around the edges for children — or that perhaps one should be a girl or Asian or Native American.

At least when you read the newspaper on paper, you know that if you tear an article out of it folded up and put it in your pocket it will have the same words written on it when you unfolded and share with a friend. You know that when you pull a book off of your library shelf to read to your child the story will be the same as when you read it the last time you pulled it off the shelf.

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de eBook Беларуская: Фотаздымак электроннай кнігі Русский: Фотография электронной книги (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is also true that all you need in order to read a book printed on paper is light. You can read a book by daylight, by electric light, by florescent light, by incandescent light, by lantern light, and even by candlelight. An electronic book — requires not only some sort of electronic reader, but it requires the right type of electronic reader.

Many ebook readers can read many formats — but if you have a given book in a given format, you might not always have that reader. It is also true that if you have a book on your electronic book reader and you wish to share with a friend it can be awkward.

I know that many ebook readers can be read by ambient light, but you still need the reader. Of course even with a book, you do need the book, but if you want to loan a friend your copy of that latest murder mystery, your whole library doesn’t have to travel with it if he doesn’t have a reader matching yours.

Can you legally transfer to their reader? Is it physically possible to transfer it? Do you have to delete it from yours when you transferred to theirs? Is it even legal for you to allow your friend to read the book on your reader? Do you even own the right to read the books on your very own reader?

The fictional electronic book The Hitchhiker's...

The fictional electronic book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, depicted on the cover of a 1991 electronic edition of the actual trilogy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve bought a book from an actual book store and taken it home you know you own that book. I think you realize that you probably shouldn’t go and photocopy that book and start selling the photocopied copies it. However you do know that you own a copy of that book that you holding your hand. You can loan it to your friend if you choose to. You know you can sell that book if you would like to. Probably it is legal for you to rent out that book — but I’m not sure on that?

With electronic books I’m really not sure what my rights are. I know that as soon as I have turned on an electronic device that there are pages of tiny written text telling me what my rights and obligations are. All of these rights and obligations are in extremely legal vocabulary and probably far beyond the typically educated person. I’m sure somebody believes that the text is clear? Perhaps I’m too trusting and that belief? Sometimes I think the text been written to confuse the average reader.

How many people have actually stopped reading print on paper?

Two tall metal file cabinets for work or home use

Two tall metal file cabinets for work or home use (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t get me wrong. Consider where I am writing this article — on a blog on the Internet. I have nothing against technology. In fact you might consider me a bit of a technophile. I love technology and when I was a teenager embraced the computer long before it was popular for teens or even college students to do so. Computers were room filling boxes of circuitry requiring special air-conditioning units the size of a bank of four-drawer filing cabinets…

…you do remember filing cabinets? They were metal or wood upright cabinets with drawers especially made for manilla coloured card-stock folders filled with reports and other papers. …that was where the terms “folder” “file” “record” and even “record” came from.

XDS Sigma 5

XDS Sigma 5 (Photo credit: Scott Beale)

Actually, computers not only were room-sized, but they required large rooms and never would have fit in anything short of a classroom.

Teens when I was young typically did not have access to computers. I was lucky. My grade 11 physics teacher ran a “computer club” where members could teach themselves and each other how to program computers in “Fortran” one of the major computer programming languages of the time.

We would “code” the programs onto coding forms in pencil in block letters which our physics teacher —would then take the to the local technical institute SAIT (the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) once or twice a week. At SAIT key punch operators would take our coding forms and punch the information onto computer cards and return the stacks of cards our teacher. Each program would be a stack of cards. Each line of the form was a card, each line of the program a single card of punched holes. Our teacher wouldn’t simply feed those cards into a computer. They would first be fed in to the machines and a printout made of the cards. The printouts would be brought back to the school so we could proofread our work and correct any errors so corrected cards could be punched out… It might take a week or two for the programs to be ready to be run.

In any case it was a long involved process, so you had to love the idea of having access to a computer and learning to program one. I have been involved with computers ever since the mid-seventies. So you can see, I am not anti-technology.

English: A whole lotta books in my personal li...

English: A whole lotta books in my personal library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, I have a library of actual books. Some would call my library huge and others would consider it tiny. It exists on five or six – 6 foot tall book cases that are actually for the most part double deep. I could probably double the number of bookshelves I have to properly fit my library.

As a side note, shelves of books make are great for creating a nice quiet room. They reduce echoes and they insulate you from sounds that might travel through them. So if you have a noisy neighbour, a wall covered by shelves of books will block out any disturbing noise whether music, videos, video games, snoring or… and also give you privacy too. Of course you also need the books in the first place. Try do that by leaning an ebook reader against a wall.

Of course I think most people have their electronic library stored on their actual device and not on “the cloud” so their copy of their book is as safe as their personal storage is. That is a whole other topic.  As I have mentioned, I love technology, so I like the idea of having electronic versions of the books I have on my shelf. However I keep noticing that older formats of media have problems when newer ones come up.

English: Books and bookshelves. Admont Abbey L...

English: Books and bookshelves. Admont Abbey Library, Austria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the exception of specialty vinyl records, most have died out. Consider how hard it is to find a video rental shop? Or even a VCR? Do your kids know what a cassette tape is? I wonder how hard it is to find a 3 1/2″ floppy disk? I bet it is nearly impossible to find a 5 1/4″ one and do you even remember 8″ floppies? How about full size laser disks? That is where the “C” in “CD” comes from “CD means “Compact Disk” as opposed to the full sized Laser Disk.

How does this relate to books as you don’t need a special reader for books? How often are you nagged by your utility company or bank to switch to paperless billing? How many clubs or other organizations are starting to do away with paper newsletters? How many Newspapers are starting to reconsider their paper editions? Have you noticed the paper in your newspaper getting thinner and thinner as they try to trim every penny to keep printing and still making a profit? Have you read about publishers being asked to alter the text of classic novels by school boards and parent-teacher associations? Have you heard about communities asking that books be banned from libraries? Have you tried donate books or magazines to a charity lately? Will Santa or Tom Sawyer ever smoke a pipe again?

With electronic, digital versions of these established print items becoming more common, familiar, and popular, the paper ones are actually being phased out before your eyes!

Is this the “Death of Gutenberg”?

Annotated Bookshelf

Annotated Bookshelf (Photo credit: jonathanpberger)


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About dwpenner

DWPenner has a broad education that is strong in the sciences and technology. He also has studied archeology and some history in his journey to "Now". DWPenner enjoys creating, whether sketching or writing. Creating computer graphics or web pages are equally satisfying and at one time he loved writing computer programs. Medieval heraldry has been a passion and currently he volunteers as one of the Directors of a heritage society.
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