Before the cloud and servers, before chips, dongles and usbs, and before the entire digital revolution, knowledge storage came in simpler form. The book. Remember them? I’ll admit to loving my gadgets – be it iphone/ipad/imac/macbook – and God only knows how much time I spend on them aggregated. But the truth is, nothing moves me, or has the emotional resonance of a book. The feel, the look, the weight, even the smell; glimpses of unknown the worlds they contain, and the journeys they can take you on. Remember that surge of memory when you uncover a much loved and thumbed copy of an old favourite? While they have the power to transport us, part of the beauty of a book is the chance of some kind of permanence – the promise that all we are and all we know needn’t disappear in time and dust, but can be saved, passed on, added to the store of human knowledge.
Living in London, we are lucky enough to have The British Library on our doorstep – housing over 150 million items, it is one of the biggest in the world. It also hosts regular exhibitions, which presently include The Treasures of the British Library, in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery. For the more bookish amongst you, this collection holds some real treats. Everything from the 1215 Magna Carta, to the original song lyrics to Help by the Beatles, in John Lennon’s own hand. From the Hebrew text The Golden Haggadah (c1320) to the original of Oscar Wilde’s last published work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
However, the most fascinating and emotive item, personally, was an original Gutenberg Bible. Aesthetically, it’s a beautiful, ornate object – something that was made with skill and passion, and with the presence of something that has the weight of ages on it. For me though, its what this pile of ink and paper represents; one of the most significant evolutions in the dissemination of information in the Western world, and something that shaped the way we think and think today.
Printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, Germany in the 1450’s the Gutenberg Bible was the first major book printed with a movable type printing press. It marked the beginning of the Gutenberg revolution and the age of the printed book. The truism that information is power may seem clichéd now; however, the ability to not simply record a message, but reproduce it quickly, efficiently and relatively cheaply, transformed something at the core of how we now see our society. Control over access to information, knowledge and education fundamentally altered with the arrival of the printing press. An idea can always cross boundaries, but from that point onwards the speed with which an idea could reach critical mass steadily shrank. That single ability, of allowing an idea to travel, to reach people, and to grow into a movement would change forever the manner in which the many could be controlled by the few. If you’ve followed the role of social networking sites such as Twitter in the dissemination of information in Tunysia, Egypt, Iran, Libya et al, remember, those movements have their roots in the revolution of the printing press. So if you find yourself with a spare moment anywhere near Kings Cross, I’d urge you to go take a look at a true piece of history, the pre-digital cloud.