A Brief History of the Book from Tablet to Tablet

RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage reviews books, reports, new periodicals, databases, websites, blogs, and other electronic resources, as well as exhibition, book, and auction catalogs pertaining directly and indirectly to the fields of rare book librarianship, manuscripts curatorship, archives management, and special collections administration. Publishers, librarians, and archivists are asked to send appropriate publications for review or notice to the Reviews Editor.

Steven K. Galbraith. A Brief History of the Book from Tablet to Tablet. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2020. Paperback, xv, 164p. $50 (ISBN: 978-1-4408-6939-6, ebook ISBN: 978-1-4408-6940-2).

Steven Galbraith’s expertise in the field of rare books is apparent in his 2012 publication Rare Book Librarianship (co-authored with Geoffrey D. Smith), wherein he explains all aspects of collection management for rare books, including cataloging, outreach, care and oversight, security, digitization, and disaster preparedness. But Rare Book Librarianship is a tome for those who would model their careers after Galbraith himself, those who have already committed to a professional life in and among rare books in special collections libraries, probably (but not exclusively) in academic settings. Recently, Galbraith has launched a publication designed to teach book history to a new audience, particularly the current generation known as “digital natives.” Entitled A Brief History of the Book from Tablet to Tablet, Galbraith’s latest book serves as a bridge to connect the reading and writing technologies of today with those of the past. Galbraith argues that the human need to record knowledge has changed very little over the past five thousand years and that the formats humanity invented to do so reflect a specific set of commonalities.

A Brief History of the Book from Tablet to Tablet features four chapters presented chronologically by era: The Ancient World, Early Printing and Medieval Manuscripts, Printing with Movable Type, and Digital Books. The first chapter moves through the development of clay cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia to papyrus scrolls in ancient Egypt, and finally to the wax tablets of Greece and medieval Europe. The next chapter tracks the Chinese invention of paper, woodblock printing in China, Japan and Korea and the introduction of parchment and the codex format in Europe. Chapter Three presents the history of moveable type but begins in China before moving on to Mainz and Gutenberg. Printing by hand and by mechanical means are explored from incunabula through the nineteenth century.  Chapter Four, entitled “Digital Books,” is where the author cements his notion of the evolution of books from corporeal to digital. This chapter summarizes the development of personal computing devices such as e-books, personal computers, tablets and smart phones. Galbraith maintains that such devices serve as extensions of and improvements upon historical methods of reading and writing, using contemporary examples such as a comparison of the act of scrolling through a computer screen with that of unfurling papyrus scroll or the fact that the QWERTY keyboard invented in the 19th century endures on twenty-first-century laptop computers.

In each chapter, Galbraith asserts that elements from modern writing practices have evolved directly from ancient techniques. Galbraith organizes his thesis around six criteria: “memory” (“how much information does the technology hold?”); “readable/writable” (“can text be written, modified and/or erased?”); “recyclability” (“can the technology be…reused in some form?”); “durability” (“how long will the book last?”); “security” (is there a way to protect the information contained within?); “access” (how can the reader access the form’s information?); and “cost” (“how much does it cost to produce or purchase” the item?) (xiii). At the end of each chapter, a section called “Modern Ads for Early Technologies” categorizes the writing technology of each era according to each of the six criteria. Most chapters end with clever activities—such as creating cuneiform tablets, making tools for typesetting, and writing with the Graffiti program on a Palm Pilot—that demonstrate the technologies discussed in each one. In addition to the exercises he provides in the book, Galbraith encourages the reader to interact with actual artifacts, either at a local repository (such as a museum or library) or online via the links he provides to rare book and manuscript collections around the world.

A Brief History of the Book from Tablet to Tablet utilizes a number of successful strategies to introduce its readers to book history. Galbraith provides detailed explanations with a fluid, transparent writing style that defines unfamiliar terms without condescension. The author employs humor to keep his audience engaged and disrupts the editorial distance of third-person narration with parenthetical comments that address the reader directly. In addition, the book includes several illustrations, photographs, and diagrams that clearly illustrate the artifacts discussed in the text. Although Galbraith envisions a target audience of college students, the accessible style, tone, and layout of the book lends itself to a broader readership which could heighten interest in the subject of book history both within and beyond academia.

Overall, A Brief History of the Book from Tablet to Tablet presents a convincing argument that the evolution of the book from clay tablets to digital tablets has involved specific features that have been consistent over five millennia. Surprisingly, however, the text omits what should have been a central activity in the second chapter: bookbinding. Unlike the other chapters in the book, there were no exercises at all in this chapter, even though there was an explanation of bookbinding and book anatomy. With the plethora of web sites that demonstrate how bookbinding was done in the past and how one can learn to bind books, as well as readily available materials, the omission of bookbinding as an activity (especially for students of literature, library science, and history, whom Galbraith names as potential readers) seems both odd and glaring. In spite of this omission, however, A Brief History of the Book from Tablet to Tablet is a profoundly well-written, delightfully readable and very engaging book which will prove useful to those new to the subject of book history, those who desire to teach the subject, and to bibliophiles with a desire to learn more about the origins of their passion.

—Carla N. Cain, El Camino College