[an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive] THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION: CHANGING OXFORD [an error occurred while processing this directive]


University of Oxford
Director of University Library Services and Bodley's Librarian


Address delivered in the University of Manchester,
16 May 2001

Click on the images for larger versions then on the Back button to return to the text

Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen:

II can hardly begin to tell you what a great pleasure it is to be back in Manchester today, and what a great honour it is for me to have been invited, not just to join you in celebrating 150 years of information in this great University, but also to talk about a subject which is so dear to my heart in a place which has meant so much in my life, both personally and professionally. As a Mancunian by birth, as an old boy of Manchester Grammar School, and as a lifelong Manchester United fan, the City of Manchester has left its indelible impressions on me; and, even though I haven't lived here for 25 years, its influences still shape who and what I am.

For reasons I won't bore you with today, I find myself the proud possessor of degrees from five different UK universities. But the one that still gives me the most satisfaction and pride is my Manchester MA, which I obtained by full-time research in the French Department here under the late Gilbert Gadoffre, and which I completed while I was a member of the University Library staff. I earned that degree the hard way, and I like to think that it helped to launch me on my academic library career. So for that reason, I regard Manchester University as my real alma mater, and I have every cause to be eternally grateful to it. As I look across this lecture hall, too, I'm glad of this opportunity to express my special gratitude to Dr Fred Ratcliffe, who was University Librarian here from 1965 to 1980, and who believed in me enough to appoint me, in 1970, to my first professional post in the Library here, and with whom it was a real privilege to team up again ten years later when he took me on as his Deputy in Cambridge.

Complete works of Octave Mirabeau

But enough of me and of my personal debts to things associated with Manchester! Except to say, perhaps, in leading into my subject today, that my postgraduate research in 19th-century French literature, which was extensively book-based, was wonderfully well served by the outstanding collections which reside in this University. Perhaps an audience like this hardly needs reminding that the John Rylands University Library of Manchester (or 'Jerusalem' as we fondly refer to it in the trade!) is a national treasure. You all know, in theory at least, that the Library is the Kohinoor diamond in the University's many-splendoured crown. But I can tell you, from personal experience as a postgraduate student here, that the Library's physical holdings are truly world-class, and that they are a standing tribute to the vision and commitment, not only of the University's founding fathers (and mothers!), but also of successive Vice-Chancellors and University Librarians, the list of whose names includes so many great luminaries of the academic and library worlds of the 20th century. I feel very privileged indeed to have been able to play my own small part, as a member of the library staff for six happy years here, in the work of a very significant part of the nation's academic library heritage.

Chained book in Duke Humfrey's Libr

All of which provides me with what our American cousins would call a convenient segué into the first (and most substantial) part of my talk to you today: the history of the book, and its glorious past. And which of us can deny how central to the intellectual, cultural, political, economic and domestic history of the world has been the development of the book, in all its myriad forms? In talking to a highly literate audience, as I am today, I cannot imagine that I need to over-egg this particular pudding. You will be aware, as I am, that the book has played a really crucial part in the transmission of ideas and knowledge across history; that it has been the means of shaping history itself; and that the book - both as artefact and as information medium - has played a pivotal role in the maintenance and development of civilisation as we know it. Virtually everything about who and what we are today, and certainly most of what forms the basis of our understanding of where we have come from, stems from that extraordinary and enduring object: the book.

Disbound codex

It is, after all, thanks to the book, or more properly the codex (the 'gathered volume'), that we know most of what we know about the ancient world. It is because of the book that much of the staggering knowledge of the ancients - their ideas, their culture, their language, their inventions, and all their immense wisdom - has come down to us, and has given shape and meaning to our world. And it is thanks principally to the Herculean labours of all those chroniclers and scribes in the monastic scriptoria of the West that we have such a rich, book-based, record of our origins and of our collective past. The book, in short, has been the effective antidote to our tendency towards global amnesia.

Fragment of Plato's Tetralogies

Plato, despite all his intellectual gifts and learning, and, perhaps rather surprisingly, seems to have regretted the invention, during Egyptian antiquity, of the art of writing. In his dialogue Phaedrus, he makes one of his characters say that if men came to learn and practise the art of writing, "they (would) cease to exercise memory because they (would) rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks." And yet, by a delightful irony, it is only by those same "external marks", recorded in the Greek manuscript papyri and in book form in the later codices of the Dark Ages, that Plato's own thoughts (like those recorded in this Bodleian fragment of his Tetralogies) have been transmitted to us at all.

: Monastic scribe at work

By the 6th century AD, the barbarian hordes had swept across Europe, destroying both the classical world of Greece and Rome and, to a great extent, the early Christian civilisation. Only in the comparative peace and security of the monastic houses did the literature of the ancient world survive in any meaningful way. Papyri, mostly preserved beneath the sands, have since been unearthed, of course; but our knowledge of things both classical and Christian is due almost entirely to the work done in the scriptoria and in the libraries of the Carolingian monasteries. So much so, that it is impossible to imagine how much poorer we would be without the centuries of protective care that was lavished on the books of learning, or how different our modern civilisation might have been without it. Our debt to all those scribes and librarians, and to the many thousands of books they meticulously copied and preserved, is truly incalculable.

Cathedral library interior

And "books" (libri) is what they called their handwritten treasures. By the 4th century AD, the codex book, made of gathered leaves of parchment, or vellum, had become the predominant form for all sorts of literature, Christian as well as pagan. The transition from the papyrus roll to the bound codex has been described as "the most momentous development in the history of the book until the invention of printing". But it was the dedicated monastic copyists whose infinite skills and commitment maintained the flickering flame of learning against all the odds, and who helped, ultimately, to turn the art of the manuscript book into a full-blown medieval industry.

Medieval manuscript book on paper

By the 12th century, there was already a flourishing book trade in many centres in England. By that time, the use of expensive vellum (the skin, generally, of sheep, goats or calves) was giving way to paper, which was imported from the Orient until the first European paper became generally available in the 13th century. Even so, the labour involved in the meticulous copying of a text made a book produced by a professional scribe a comparatively expensive luxury, which meant that most books remained in the hands of the rich, or of wealthy institutions.

'Humble' manuscript

Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenford probably produced for himself those "twenty bokes, clad in black or reed" that "stodd above his beddes heed", and they were no doubt the relatively humble products of the clerk himself, whose education will have included the all-important skills of handling the reed or quill, the penknife and the home-made ink.

13th-century Bible

The first manuscript books to survive in any quantity, and to be still available in private hands on a considerable scale, are the Bibles copied - especially in France - during the 13th century. With the long reign of Saint-Louis, which began in 1226, the Middle Ages reached the zenith of artistic achievement and spiritual fervour, and it was the French king who remarked that "a church without books is like an army without weapons". On his return from the Crusades, Louis scoured all the abbeys of his realm for important texts, and established a network of scribal workshops to reproduce them. He also threw open his own large private library to the world of scholarship, and thus helped not only to make Paris the intellectual centre of the West, but also to create a far greater demand for books than had ever existed before. In order to cater for this demand, book production passed mainly from the monastic scriptoria to the newly-established commercial workshops, many of which were clustered around the medieval universities, where the friars, and especially the Dominicans, were taking the intellectual lead from the great religious houses.

Carthusian Breviary

Books of every conceivable kind began to pour from the European workshops of the 13th and 14th centuries. Bibles of every shape and size exerted their well-documented influence on European civilisation; Psalters, Breviaries (like this one), Books of Hours and Missals met the demands of an increasingly pious intelligentsia, and were often read out of existence; while the more sumptuous versions were more often regarded as precious works of art from the time of their production, and have therefore generally survived in fine condition.

Illuminated book, in Humanistic script

Yet the sands were running out for the medieval manuscript book; and all the costly and time-consuming skills of the scribe and the illuminator, which went into the production of manuscript books like this, could not keep up with the demands of an increasingly literate population. There was a crying need for some less expensive and less laborious method of book production, and this was accentuated by those two immense movements that between them did so much to create our modern Europe - the Renaissance and the Reformation. It has been said that in the Middle Ages men had more time than they had vellum, while during the Renaissance they had more paper than they had time. But, of course, the Renaissance was also a time of ingenuity and invention and, by the mid-15th century, the problems of time, expense and unsatisfied demand associated with the production of books were being addressed by the invention of printing from movable type.

St Christopher woodblock

Printing itself, it is true, was by no means new. Textile printing had been established in Egypt by the 6th century AD; the Chinese were printing from blocks by the 8th century; and playing cards and pictures of the saints printed from individual woodblocks (like this one now in the John Rylands Library) were in evidence in Europe by the early 15th century.

Biblia pauperum blockbook

Experiments to produce printed texts from woodblocks were also taking place around the middle of the 15th century. But these rudimentary blockbooks were dramatically upstaged by the invention of printing from movable type, which is generally attributed to Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, and which is dated, by common consent, to late 1455.

Gutenberg 42-line Bible

I believe it is true to say that no invention has ever had a greater effect on mankind than that of this newest form of printing, the first example of which is illustrated here. Gutenberg gave the world, in effect, the first form of mass production. It was virtually the only one before the Industrial Revolution hundreds of years later, with interchangeable parts being used to create unlimited quantities of identical objects. The press which produced this splendid item (the Gutenberg 42-line Bible) was hand-operated, of course (it was a simple transformation of the familiar wine-press). But Gutenberg's invention was so effective that, apart from the speeding up of the process by the introduction of machine-printing in much later centuries, the main elements of Gutenberg's invention were to continue largely unchanged for 500 years, until the more modern world produced photolithography and, eventually, the computer-generated typesetting and printing with which we are all now so familiar.

Caxton, The game of chess

Sadly, there is no time today, in this short presentation, to do justice to the work of Gutenberg, or to that of his goldsmith backer Johann Fust, or of Fust's type-designer Peter Schoeffer. Enough to say, perhaps, by way of tribute to them, and to those like William Caxton, who followed them, that their labours not only transformed their world, but also helped to make our modern world what it is today. To say that printing spread like wildfire is perhaps even an understatement.

Aldine Euripides

The flowering of the Renaissance was made possible by it, and was aided by the staggering printed output of classical texts by men like the early 16th_century Venetian scholar Aldus Manutius, whose pocket-sized editions of so many standard authors made such a major contribution to the development of the human spirit.

The Mainz Psalter

The earliest printed books, of course, were, in many ways, almost indistinguishable in appearance from the manuscript books which preceded them (this is the Mainz Psalter, printed in 1459 by Fust and Schoeffer). The early printers based their metal types on the essentially medieval monastic scripts, and many of their early productions were designed as mass-produced manuscripts, which were often illuminated or coloured by hand, to make them look even more 'authentic', at the request of the more wealthy readers. As the Renaissance waned and gave way to the Reformation, the typefaces changed - through Gothic and black letter - to the forms with which we are more familiar today.

But it was essentially the ease of production, the sheer quantity of the output, and the widespread dissemination of the printed word, with all its amazing power, which fuelled and sustained the Reformation, which brought the Bible closer to the common man (as Tyndale longed to do), which put learning in the hands of the many and not the few, and which led, inexorably, to the kind of mass communication which is such a feature of our modern world. All of which enables me to say, without fear of contradiction (and even in the midst of the digital revolution), that the book is the most enduring and effective piece of information technology ever invented by man, in all his long history.

Early 20th-century children's books

Which brings me neatly to the second and third parts of my presentation - the present and future of the book - about which I will have to be impossibly brief. You hardly need me to tell you, I think, that even in these modern times, the printed book, in all its forms, is still one of the most common and convenient methods of communication. Our children, we are told, read fewer books than we used to - although J.K. Rowling's overnight Harry Potter fortune suggests to me, at least, that the children's book is very far from dead (whatever you might think of it as literature!)

Anarchism in France

The scholarly monograph may be on the wane (and perhaps deservedly so in the case of this one!) - they print smaller editions nowadays, or they print on-demand thanks to computer typesetting, and most copies apparently end up in libraries. But the Barbara Taylor Bradfords and the Catherine Cooksons are still sold and read in their hundreds of millions of printed copies, and the battles between the booksellers, on the high street as well as on the Internet, are enough to confirm that the book is still alive and well, and most definitely not in terminal decline (if you'll excuse the pun!).

Book Industry Trends

Even in the United States, where there are more computer users than anywhere else in the world, Book Industry Trends reveal that domestic consumer spending on books has risen over the last decade from 18 billion dollars to a staggering 31 billion - and the graph continues to rise. Notwithstanding the prophetic voices of the information gurus and of the computer industry about the demise of the printed book - they would say that wouldn't they? - there are, in fact, more and more physical books published in the world with every year that passes; and we can only assume that someone, somewhere, is actually reading all these immensely effective hand-held reading devices that we simply call printed books!

Soap advert from the John Johnson Collection

Research libraries like my own in Oxford may be digitising terabytes of electronic versions of rare or unique materials, like this ephemeral soap advert, for wider access on the Internet; but at the same time we still have very large numbers of readers coming through our front door to get their hands on our stuff, as well as an increasing quantity of newly-published volumes coming in through our back door under the provisions of legal deposit.

UK book production

Our Copyright Department in Oxford hardly needs to be told that the number of books published in the UK has grown by 250% in the last 20 years, or that last year's output, of well over 100,000 new titles, was the biggest ever recorded.) But would it surprise you to know, I wonder, that the next module of Oxford's off-campus book repository, which will have 5 kilometres of shelf space, is actually full even before it's been built, and that we're already pressing the University for its successor? For us, at least, the much-vaunted "death of the book" is more like a sick joke than a planning parameter…

So, what is actually going on here? What is really happening behind all the hype about the old technology being replaced by the new? And, if the book does have such a healthy present, what can we seriously conclude about its medium and long-term future? Is the book immortal, after all? And will it always be with us in its longstanding and familiar paper-based form?

Well, "always" is a very long time indeed; and in that respect, my own crystal ball is no more reliable than yours. I cannot, for example, say with any certainty whether our grandchildren will be able, one day, to go to bed, having pre-programmed some as yet uninvented device to download, direct into their brains as they sleep, the texts of the books they could not find the time to read during their waking hours. The history of man's inventiveness makes me hesitate to say that it could never happen that way. But would they want to live like automatons? Would they be happy to deny themselves the pleasure, the relaxation, and the opening of the mind, that our reading gives us as we sink, physically and mentally, into the pages of a book? Well, maybe it's idle to speculate on such things, when only the future itself will decide. But we can, at least, register a number of the key factors which are already at work.

Girl at computer

For example: right now, by a strange kind of irony, it appears to be the computer itself which is driving the physical production of printed materials to record levels. The advent of word-processing, of computer type-setting, and of desk-top publishing, has brought down the cost of book production more dramatically, it seems, than even the invention of printing from moveable type did five and a half centuries ago. Everybody and anybody can be a publisher today. And while the virtual spaces of the World Wide Web appear to satisfy a very large number of self-publishers, there are still many for whom the tangibility and substance of print-on-paper remains a much more desirable medium for their products. So, who knows how long that may continue? Not me - well, not today, anyway.


But then there's the e-journal, and the major changes in the scholarly communications chain which it is both feeding on and feeding. Our academics, especially in the areas of science, technology and medicine, are increasingly using the Internet as their 'virtual college', where they share and discuss their work, and where they gain access to more and more of their research information. And, although there are still relatively few scholarly journals which are 'born digital' and which only live that way, there can be no doubt that it will be in this arena that the computer will ultimately bring about a decline in the volume of printed works that are published on paper.

In fact, the reason why the volume of printed scholarly journals has not already greatly declined is that the existing structures for the distribution of academic research information are being kept in place, not so much by technological constraints, as by procedural, legal and, above all, by economic factors. At present, the publishers have the whip hand, and they are determined to control the market place for as long as they can in order to maintain their profits - and who can blame them for that? In the meantime, however, the academic library world is to a large extent 'over a barrel'. Large research libraries like my own, for example, are in the unsustainable position of paying over the odds for both physical and electronic access to most of the important published journals. And I believe it will not be until the academics themselves, and the institutions which actually fund their research, make common cause to assert their intellectual property rights, that we will see the really serious decline of the print-on-paper journal as we know it. But my crystal ball suggests that by the end of the decade, something quite transformational will have happened, and that fewer academic journals will be published in hard copy form.

e-book reading device

Right now, too, we are hearing a great deal of hype about the electronic book. New e-book companies are being formed as we speak, most of them funded by megabuck e-business venture capital. Books of every kind are being hastily digitised at great expense, and the research scientists at Xerox Parc and at Microsoft are telling us that it won't be long before we're all walking around with e-book reading devices like this, and that we'll be as happy with them as we are now with the homely paperback. In fact, Microsoft predict that by the year 2020, the primary dictionary definition of the word "book" will be "A substantial piece of writing commonly displayed on a computer or other personal viewing device"!

Bill Gates on a couch

Well, we all know that Bill Gates has his dreams, and his bright ideas; and he has a great deal of money, and the power that goes with it to make at least some of those dreams come true. But even if the economics do eventually stack up favourably - and there is enough money being lost in the e-business world to make us remain uncertain about that - the jury must still be out, on psycho-social grounds at least, as to whether the e-book reader will ever completely replicate the flexibility, the readability, and the user-friendliness of the printed book. And we would do well to remember, too, that even after 550 years, the printed book itself has not entirely replaced all forms of manuscript communication. So perhaps we should not be talking about the death of the book at all, but rather about its evolution as a persistent life-form?

: Library of Alexandria

But there is, I believe, one final lesson that we should learn from the past about the possible future of the printed book, and of the great libraries whose mission is to preserve them in their physical form for posterity. The most famous library of the ancient world was the Library of Alexandria. It perished, we are told by the most recent historians, not so much because it was dramatically destroyed in one great cataclysm, along with all its fabulous contents, but because it decayed as a result of the Alexandrian climate and the activity of rodents, and because of careless administration and lack of funds over many years.

It seems to me, therefore, that if our great libraries, and the billions of books they contain, ever suffer from decline or extinction in the future, it will not be because the computer has suddenly undermined their function as storehouses of knowledge, but because of systematic underfunding and neglect. The lesson, then, for us all - funders, librarians, and library users - is clear. It would be a betrayal of our historic heritage if we were to let our understandable enthusiasm for the exciting possibilities opened up by the new technology to deflect us from our duty to provide for the acquisition, use, and ongoing care of the massive quantity of material in traditional form which exists, and which continues to be produced, even well into the digital age and, I suspect, beyond it. Posterity demands nothing less of us, and it will not forgive us for getting it wrong!

Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen: Thank you very much for listening to me so patiently. It's been a real pleasure to talk to you…

Reg Carr
University of Manchester
16 May 2001

[Note: Since this lecture was delivered, my attention has been drawn to the findings of a research study led by Richard Harper, Director of the Digital World Research Centre at the University of Surrey, which reveals that the number of letters posted in the UK continues to rise, notwithstanding the pervasive, and growing, popularity of e-mail. Professor Harper is also apparently the joint author of a book, to be published in the autumn, entitled The Myth of the Paperless Office. See www.surrey.ac.uk/dwrc ]