OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

4:00 P.M.

February 18, 1999

The Last Printed Book

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by Klaus Musmann Ph.D.

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


Much has been written about the demise of the printed book, but it is unlikely that the book is going to disappear in the immediate future. However, two unrelated developments point to the diminishing importance of the book in our society. People are no longer reading as much as they did in past years, and computer technology is increasingly focused upon simulating the traditional functions of the book.

A recent Gallup poll found that a mere 25% of the adult population are currently book readers. Book sales are now below the amount of money that is spent on television, the movies, and even video games. Concurrently, computer technology has made it possible to access and store large numbers of books in digital format. The industry is also creating electronic ink as well as new devices that simulate a traditional book. These developments do not bode well for the future of the printed book and may eventually lead to its replacement.


Klaus Musmann is the director of the Armacost Library, and has been at the University of Redlands since 1984. He is a native of the former East Germany, and escaped from that country to the West after high school. In West Germany, he worked first as a coal miner, and then as a sailor on a minesweeper for a German unit of the U.S. Navy. He received his B.A. from Wayne State University, a master's degree in librarianship from the University of Michigan, and then another master's degree in German literature while he was a librarian at Michigan State University.

After moving to California, he obtained a Ph.D. at USC. His dissertation dealt with the diffusion of technological innovations in a complex library system. He has authored several books, and has published numerous articles in professional journals. His biography is included in Who's Who in America. He is married and lives with his wife in Redlands.

The Last Printed Book

I was going to call this brief lecture my eBook lecture, but then I thought that no one would know what an eBook was. Therefore, I changed the title of this little talk to the Last Printed Book. I thought that this title would get your attention. I also liked the sound of it and selected it for its shock value. This title reminded me of the time when I first moved to Redlands in 1984. I had lived in Pasadena and worked in Los Angeles at a rather large special library that contained over 600,000 volumes. I had been their acquisitions specialists for a number of years and purchased several thousand books each year with a budget of well over a $1,000,000. Even my new employer, the University of Redlands, maintained a library that contained approximately 200,000 books. I was glad to be affiliated with a liberal arts college that seemed to value knowledge, i.e. book knowledge, by supporting a library of substantial size for a relatively small college. Soon after my arrival in Redlands, I was looking for a house to buy, and I drove around town a great deal while searching for the perfect home. On my travels through town and the Yucaipa countryside, I repeatedly encountered automobiles with a license plate frame that proclaimed "read the book." Being a librarian, I was somewhat puzzled by this admonition since I was not sure what book they were referring to. I had seen license plates that encouraged people to "follow me to the library" and "so little time and so many books to read" by well-meaning public librarians, but I had never encountered a sign to "read the book." You may laugh, but being new to this area and not being a native of this country, it took me a while to discover the true meaning of this statement. Eventually, even I discovered that the framers of this slogan were urging me to read the bible. Of course, they did not specify the edition or version I should read, but then I thought that only a bibliophile would insist on an edition statement. Eventually, I concluded that the makers of this particular license plate frame were probably followers of a fundamentalist church whose members possessed the providence that was not available to me as an outsider. Perhaps, they believed that the end of the world was in sight and, therefore, urged everyone to read one last book, the bible, before the demise of this world.

As you probably know, and this is not a coincidence, the first major book ever printed was a copy of the bible. Johannes Gutenberg has been given credit for the invention of printing with movable type. His basic model of the printing press continued to be used, with minor modifications and improvements, well into the second half of the nineteenth century. Gutenberg's first important book that he printed in his own shop was the so-called Forty-two-line Bible. It is considered to be his masterpiece and is now known as the Gutenberg Bible. It is assumed that it was completed in 1455 and only a few copies of this work have survived the ravages of time. (If you wish to see a copy of this book, the Huntington Library in San Marino has a copy of this magnificent publication on display.) The printing of this particular bible, together with Gutenberg's second major work, a book of psalms, that was printed in 1457, are landmarks in the history of printing and are considered to be among the greatest artistic achievements of their time. These two printed books rival in their beauty many of the illuminated manuscripts that were produced before and after Gutenberg's invention. Of course, it was only natural that the early printed books followed the conventions of the prevalent mode of scholarly communication of their time. The very early printed books faithfully copied the manuscripts produced by the late medieval monks. At that time, there were no other models to follow. Just think of the early automobiles. Initially, they imitated the horse drawn carriages, but eventually the automobile designers broke with the past and produced very different designs. This was just as true for the very early printers. Among scholars and members of the antiquarian book trade these very early books are referred to as incunabula or by the German word Wiegendrucke. This term refers to books that were printed with movable type prior to 1501. Soon thereafter, printers placed less reliance on past models, and printed books that were markedly divergent in size, form and design from the medieval manuscripts. Especially, noteworthy are the books printed by several of the early Venetian printers. They designed and produced books that were very beautiful works of art and are renown for their innovative graphic designs.

Of course, the origin of the book preceded the invention of printing by several thousand years. After Gutenberg's invention, even the handwritten book flourished for many years, and it was only gradually replaced by the printed book. In fact, it has been estimated that more handwritten, illuminated manuscripts were produced after the invention of printing than in all of the years preceding it. Contrary to what many of us may believe, the book has never been an entirely static entity during its long existence. In fact, the book has undergone many dramatic changes during certain periods of its life. Frederick Kilgour, in his recent book The Evolution of the Book divides the history of the book into several distinct, but overlapping periods that are characterized by major transformations of the book's structure, shape, and in its method of production.1 Clay tablets, papyrus rolls, and the codex were singled out by Kilgour as the major divisions of the book's structure and shape. Clay tablets came into existence in 2500 B.C. and lasted to about 100 A.D. The papyrus roll came into being five hundred years later, in about 2000 B.C., and was still in use during the 7th century A.D. The development of the codex dates back to 100 A.D., and has continued to the present day in virtually unchanged form. The invention of the codex, or the book as we have known it for the past 2000 years, has been hailed as one of the most efficient and ingenious techniques to store and retrieve information. The inventor of the codex is not known to us. Prior to the invention of printing, the pages of codices consisted of either papyrus or parchment and were only gradually replaced by paper. Paper had been introduced to the Muslim world during the seventh century from China, and Baghdad and Damascus became important centers for the production of paper. Kilgour writes that paper had replaced papyrus entirely by the tenth century in the East, but that it took another century before paper was introduced to Spain.2 Eventually, paper replaced not only papyrus, but also parchment that had been the favorite medium of the medieval monks in Western Europe. In addition to these major form divisions, Kilgour divides the history of the book into four additional technological stages of developments:

1. The invention of printing from moveable type in 1455.

2. The development of machine power and its application to both printing presses and type casting at the beginning of the early nineteenth century.

3. The application of computer-driven photo composition that was combined with offset printing in the 1970s.

4. The last great transformation of the book will begin with the year 2000. It is the development of the electronic book, or the so-called eBook.3

In spite of all of the changes the book underwent during these many years and the technology and infrastructure that surrounds it at present, every author had to prepare their manuscripts in long hand until the invention of the typewriter during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Even today, some writers still write with a fountain pen in the age of the computer although I do not know whether any publisher still accepts handwritten manuscripts.

Recently, it has been very fashionable to write about the demise of the book. At this time, we are not certain whether these obituaries of the printed book are premature. Sven Birkerts, a writer who has written extensively about the book and about reading, made an eloquent case in defense of the book in his Gutenberg Elegies, and in other publications. Birkerts is a passionate defender of the book and provides us, at least for those of us who would like to see the printed book continue to exist, with any number of reasons that "the bound book is the ideal vehicle for the written word."4  However, even Birkerts has to admit that the influx of electronic communications and information processing technologies, abetted by the steady improvement of the microprocessor, has rapidly brought on a condition of critical mass. Suddenly it feels like everything is poised for change; the slower world that many of us grew up with dwindles in the rearview mirror. The stable hierarchies of the printed page -- one of the defining norms of that world -- are being superseded by the rush of impulses through freshly minted circuits. The displacement of the page by the screen is not yet total...-- it may never be total -- but the large-scale tendency in that direction has to be obvious to anyone who looks.5

Of course, the mere survival of the book as a relic from another time is not the question that is being posed. The issue being debated is whether the printed book will continue to be the centerpiece of intellectual activity of our civilization. When writers and scholars speak about the impending demise of the book, they are generally not concerned with the extinction of the physical entity that we call a book. They are apprehensive about the disappearance of a way of life that was centered upon the book as the core of our civilization's intellectual life. Both Carla Hesse and the previously cited Sven Birkerts are concerned with the disappearance of a way of life that was centered entirely upon the book. Hesse, in an essay entitled "Books in Time", writes that she was not so much concerned about the changes in the physical format of the book nor in the chain that is required for its continuing existence, i.e., the relationship between an author, the publisher, the printer, and a book's audience. She is primarily interested in the book as a leisurely form of intellectual exchange. It is a mode of public communication that is deliberate and cautious, it is not based on "action, but rather as reflection upon action. Indeed, the book form serves precisely to defer action, to widen the temporal gap between thought and deed, to create a space for reflection and debate."6 Sven Birkerts expressed a somewhat similar opinion in an essay entitled "The Fate of the Book." He stated that the ultimate destiny of the book is closely linked to a way of life that is being threatened by the encroachment of the computer. He writes that many people do not understand that more is at risk than merely exchanging the book for a computer screen. "There are many people out there who don't make a connection between the book and the idea, or culture of the book. I would say that this connection is everything."7

Even B. Jacobsen, a professor of computer science at MIT and a senior member of a research team that developed electronic ink, concedes that the book is fundamentally different from the computer screen. He characterizes the pages of a book as "a large number of simultaneous high-resolution displays. When we turn the page, we do not lose the previous page."8  He also refers to the book as having the characteristics of serendipity and comparison that only the display of multiple and simultaneous pages can provide. In contrast to this view by a computer scientist of the book, the humanist Sven Birkerts believes that the book represents the ideal of completion. To him, the printed text is the cumulation of previous scholarship, a presentation of authority. "The fixity of the word imprinted on the page, and our awareness of the enormous editorial and institutional pressure behind that fixity, send the message that here is a formulation, an expression that must be attended to."9  He continues in this vain by stating that the bound volumes of printed books that are standing on a library's shelves represent a form of intellectual structure that is sanctioned by history and society. Birkerts passionately believes that computer technology eradicates this notion of permanence and authority of the printed volume, and substitutes for it a fragmentation and openness that he finds disconcerting.

George P. Landow, in an essay entitled "Twenty Minutes Into the Future, Or How Are We Moving Beyond the Book?" asserts that we have already left the book behind. He states that most readers assume that the eclipse of the book lies far ahead in the distant future. "In many ways," he writes, "we have, for better or worse, already moved beyond the book. Even on the crudest, most materialist standard involving financial returns, we no longer find it at the center of our culture as the primary means of recording and disseminating information and entertainment."10  According to this author, the sale of books ranks below television, the movies, and even below the sales of video games. In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, the recording industry was characterized as being a $40 billion industry. If this figure is true, and I did not check out their sources, popular music sold twice as many CD's and tapes (in dollar value) as the entire book output of American Publishers.11  Yet, book sales in the United States are still increasing. The success of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon Books speak for themselves. In 1997, the total sales of books climbed to 21 billion dollars according to the Association of American Publishers. During this period, 56,022 books were published. Ten years earlier, in 1987, the total value of books sold in the U.S. had been only $12 billion dollars, yet the number of books published had been approximately the same (56,027). As these figures indicate, the dollar value of book sales had doubled over this period of ten years, yet the number of titles that were published remained static or even declined very slightly.12

With book sales continuing to climb, why are we concerned about the fate of the book? The Gallup Poll tells us that Americans are reading less today than they were 25 years ago. Only 24% of the adult population claims to have read a book during the preceding week. Of course, this is just an opinion poll, but reading is one of these wholesome activities that is ranked very high by a vast majority of the American public (90%) and reading ranks right up there with motherhood and apple pie in the popular mind. Therefore, we would have expected a much higher response rate. According to this survey then , we can assume that fewer than 25% of the American public is reading a book at any given time.13  Some people have blamed the lack of reading on the problem of illiteracy. The former First Lady, Barbara Bush, generated a great deal of publicity to bring this problem to the attention of the general public although the true illiteracy rate is probably fairly low in the United States. I think that most people know how to read, but they just don't do it. For one thing, Americans do not have the time nor the inclination to read. Reading is essentially an anti-social activity, and by and large, Americans are very sociable beings. They do not wish to be stigmatized as being anti-social. Valentine Cunningham wrote in a recent review of a book by Anna Quindlen in the Los Angeles Times "that uneasy about anyone who prefers reading to doing. Reading is too indoors a pursuit, too female, too wasteful of business time. The American Way is to read, if at all, for instruction rather than pleasure."14 This statement may be somewhat exaggerated, but it may be difficult for future generations to imagine that someone actually sat quietly and alone in a room reading a book. The aforementioned Birkerts described this as follows:

Maybe we are ready to embrace the pain of leaving the book behind; maybe we are shedding a skin; maybe the meaning and purpose of being human is itself undergoing metamorphosis. I fully accept that my grandchildren will hear me tell of people sitting in rooms quietly turning the pages of books with the same disbelief with which I listened to my grandfather tell of riding in carriages or pitching hay. These images trigger a deep nostalgia in many of us, and we will have a similar nostalgia for the idea of solitary reading and everything it represents.15

Reading in silence dates back to the twelfth century, according to Kilgour.16  In the fourteenth century it became fashionable among the nobility who started to acquire books and laid the foundations for the building of libraries. Of course, the general public was illiterate and was not acquainted with books during that time.

Recently, we appear to have entered the latest and, perhaps, the last chapter of the printed book's distinguished history. We know that many printed books could be eliminated now, especially books that are not part of an intellectual dialogue, but are merely serving a temporary and/or utilitarian purpose. We no longer need printed records of government regulations, reference books, time tables, encyclopedias, financial records, business communication, catalogs, indexes, and similar publications. These types of printed matter are doomed since they are much easier to use when such data is stored on a CD-ROM or on a Web-site database that can be accessed from anywhere on the Internet. Similarly, research in business, education, law, the physical sciences as well as the social sciences, or even the papers done by undergraduates can be conducted more thoroughly and efficiently on a computerized database. Our own undergraduates shy away from printed indexes, and conduct their research exclusively from online databases or from Web sites. Even a strong defender of the traditional book agrees with this point of view. E. Annie Proulx, who won the 1994 Pulitzer Price for her fiction, stated in an interview in the New York Times that the Internet is "for bulletin boards on esoteric subjects, reference works, lists and news -- timely, utilitarian information, efficiently pulled through the wires. Nobody is going to sit down and read a novel on a "twitchy little screen, ever."17  I do not agree with her on this latter point, although she is quite correct when she refers to the generic computer monitor as that >twitchy little screen.@ Improvements in electronic displays would be very welcome, of course, but already tens of thousands of electronic texts exist that were created by individuals and institutions that do not consider the limitations of today's computers as such a liability as to inhibit a potential reader from glancing at their electronic books. One of the largest collection of electronic books can be found on the Web site of the Internet Public Library ( at the University of Michigan. At this site, links to more than 8,000 electronic books can be found. One of the oldest undertakings to digitize books is the Project Gutenberg. This ambitious project was founded by Michael Hart and he envisioned the digitizing of some 10,000 books by the year 2001. However, only 1,600 books have been made available at this time.18 Of course, there are many additional academic and public interest sites that have also taken on the task of making available the literature of the past. For example, Columbia University, the University of Texas, the University of Virginia, Carnegie Mellon University as well as Yale University have developed such sites, and the number of books that are available in digital format is truly impressive although no new publications are among them. Most electronic books on the Internet are in the public domain and can be copied without any charges. The developers of these projects anticipated that every book could be entered into these free databases as soon as a book lost its copyright protection. However, Congress recently extended the copyright law and effectively cut off the supply of more recent books for these projects. Under the old copyright law, books were protected for 28 years and could be renewed once for another 28 years. Under the current law, intellectual property is protected for the life of its author plus seventy years. This in effect has put a stop to the dream of a free digital library that would include more recent publications although efforts to establish such an entity are continuing. As with other types of full-text databases, commercial publishers could enter this field and make more recent and new books available for a fee although this development appears to be in its infancy, at least as far as books are concerned. In a related development, textbook publishers, such as McGraw-Hill, give college instructors the options to pick and chose chapters from different books that are published by the same publisher. These chapters from various books can be combined into new anthologies that can be tailor-made for a specific class. In contrast to the availability of free digital copies of older books and current newspapers on the Internet, access to the professional journal literature is tightly controlled. Unlike books, the copyright of professional journals has always been in the hands of commercial interests. They have never been accessible on the Internet without the payment of fees. For the record, over 10,500 professional journals are currently available in digital format, but very few can be accessed without the payment of fees.

My own paper's topic was suggested by an article with the title "The Last Book" by the previously cited Jacobsen of MIT in the IBM Systems Journal. Jacobsen and his associates have been conducting research on ink and they have developed a radically different type of ink. Recently, this research team has filed several patents and have licensed a company to produce ink that changes its colors in response to electronic impulses. Several researchers have been working on this development, but Jacobsen and his team at MIT appear to be in the forefront at this time. The significance of this development, the production of electronic ink, could revolutionize the printing of traditional books as we have known them. You may well ask what is it that makes electronic ink such an important event in the history of the book? Let me briefly explain, in non-technical language, the underlying technology of such an application. The letters of the printed page consist of small dots of ink. The ink itself is a pigment that adheres to the page. The images of a computer screen are similarly composed of small dots that are called pixels. Unlike ink, pixels react to electric charges and can be manipulated to change their brightness and shape. However, a computer monitor or a liquid crystal display on a laptop computer are normally needed to display text or images electronically. These display cases are generally too cumbersome to take to bed with you, although the latest versions of several laptop computers have been slimmed down considerably. Of course, the screens are also dependent upon an available source of energy. Jacobsen and his team tried to find an alternative to these display modes and embedded small dots on a paper-like sheet that can be manipulated electronically. This technology is referred to as micro-encapsulation, that is, it encloses small bubbles of gas, liquid, or even solids within some other material, such as paper or plastic. A similar, and less sophisticated application of this technology can be found in magazine advertisements that contain samples of the essences of perfumes. Jacobsen has succeeded in producing such pages in his laboratory setting although the commercial application of this technology is still some time away. To make this work as envisioned, a book would be produced that looks just like a traditional one, but contained only blank pages. An external computer would be needed to download a text from a publisher's database. These files would be transmitted to a display driver that would be hidden in the spine of such a book. In turn, the display driver would send a signal to the electronic dots on each page, and the text would be displayed in customary fashion as if the pages had been typeset.19

Another approach to develop an electronic book has been taken by the small manufacturer NuvoMedia Inc. in Palo Alto, California. This past December they brought out a device which they call the Rocket eBook. I bought a copy of their first model. This electronic book can hold up to 4,000 pages of text, it weighs 22 ounces and measures app. 7 2 x 5 inches. Its screen size is back lit for reading in the sun or in a dark bedroom and measures 3 x 4 2 inches. The built-in, rechargeable batteries make it possible to read for approximately 16 hours with the back light turned on. Without a back-lit screen, the batteries last for over 30 hours. The device comes with two font sizes. One can change the size, but not the type of font that is being displayed. This eBook comes from the manufacturer with a pre-loaded instruction manual, a Random House Dictionary, and with a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. At this time, 175 titles are available from Barnes & Noble's on their Web site. Software is included that permits the owner to download any one of these titles to a home computer. The files are easily transferred to the eBook itself. These electronic book files are priced anywhere from $3.50 to $26.00. Of course, you do not have to pay any shipping charges for your purchases which is generally a major expense when buying books over the Internet. The book I downloaded was sent to me within thirty minutes of my order via e-mail. The downloaded file can also be transferred to a diskette or kept indefinitely on the computer's hard disk. However, these files are encoded and can only be read on a registered eBook. Several competitors, including Microsoft, have announced the production of similar devices later this year. In my opinion, the screen quality needs to be improved (although it is adequate), and the costs will have to be lowered for such a device in order to make major inroads in the market place. However, I can see a niche for such an electronic book for a professional individual who needs the portability and the light weight of this device. Heavy sales catalogs or cumbersome city ordinances would be good candidates for a conversion to electronic files that could be stored in such an eBook. College students or even high school students are also an ideal target for such an electronic book. The students could download all of the textbooks for their classes into a single electronic textbook.

At this time, it is any one's guess whether any or all of these developments will lead to the demise of the printed book. When we mention the possible replacement of the book by computers or similar devices we need to keep in mind that the future of technological innovations are difficult to predict. At this time, we do not know what shape or form computers will have assumed in the year 2050 or even in 2020. Technological developments are too rapid to make realistic long range predictions. In addition, we need to be aware that social, cultural, economic and even political traditions change, too, and that the preferences of most people may change in the future. They may prefer to read from an improved computer screen rather than from a traditional book page. Predictions of the future, even by knowledgeable experts, usually end up as embarrassments to the forecasters. For example, it was predicted with a high degree of certainty that photography would eliminate the need for painting, that the movies would destroy the legitimate theater, and that television would kill the movies.20   None of these technological developments had quite the impact that had been forecast, yet all of these inventions influenced and promoted change within the affected areas, sometimes in quite unforeseen ways. We should also keep in mind that many technical innovations were adopted by large segments of society that had appeared without any advance fanfare. Who would have predicted the current Internet boom just five or ten years ago? The only prediction that we can make with an absolute degree of certainty is that change will occur. If the past is any indication, the physical entity that we call a book will undergo as many modifications in the future as it has in the past. This evolution may be subtle or it may be quite dramatic, but the book will change just as it has over the past few thousand years, only at a much faster pace. Increasingly, the written word appears to be migrating from the printed page to the computer screen. This development is by no means inevitable, yet the trend appears to be relentlessly moving into that direction. Let me conclude my paper with a quotation by the previously cited Frederick Kilgour who summarizes the current situation of the book rather well:

In the last third of the twentieth century, the book in the shape of a long familiar object composed of inked sheets folded, cut, and bound began to metamorphose into the book as a screen display on an electronic machine; the transformation, in materials, shape, and structure, of the device for carrying written and graphic information was more extreme than any since the original creations on clay and papyrus in the third millennium B.C.21

The URL for the Internet Public Library where the 8,000 + monographs can be found is


  1. . Frederick G. Kilgour, The Evolution of the Book (New York: Oxford U.P., 1998) 3-5.

  2. . Kilgour, 59.

  3.   Kilgour, 3-4.

  4. . Sven Birkerts, Gutenberg Elegies (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994) 106.

  5. . Birkerts 3.

  6. . Carla Hesse, "Books in Time,"   The Future of the Book", ed. Geoffrey Nunberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 27.

  7. . Sven Birkerts, "The Fate of the Book," Tolstoy's Dictaphone, ed. Sven Birkerts (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1996) 189.

  8. . J. Jacobsen, B. Comiskey, and C. Turner, "The Last Book," IBM Systems Journal 36 (1997): n. pag. Online. FirstSearch. 12 Nov 1998.

  9. . Birkerts, "The Fate of the Book," 191.

  10. . George P. Landow, "Twenty Minutes Into the Future, or How Are We Moving Beyond the Book?" The Future of the Book, 210.

  11. . Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1998, A1.

  12. .The Bowker Annual, 43rd ed. (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1998) 530. The figures for 1987 are from the 34th ed. of the same publication, 45.

  13. . Rebecca Heath, "In So Many Words: How Technology Reshapes the Reading Habit," American Demographics 19 (March 1997) 39.

  14. . Valentine Cunningham, "Bibliomania," Los Angeles Times Book Review, Jan. 17, 1998, 3.

  15. . Sven Birkerts, Tolstoy's Dictaphone, 190.

  16. . Kilgour, 78.

  17. . As quoted in James J. O'Donnell, "The Pragmatics of the New: Trithemius, McLuhan, Casiodorus," The Future of the Book, 37.

  18. . Diane Krieger "Dawn of the Digital Book," bibliotech.usc (Winter 1998): 17.

  19. . Ivars Peterson, "Rethinking Ink: Printing the Pages of an Electronic Book," Science News 153 (1998): 396.

  20. . Geoffrey Nunberg, ed. , The Future of the Book, 13.

  21. . Kilgour, 3.

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