Iain Donaldson on the Legacy of the Early Printed Book to its Modern Descendants

On a particularly cold and rainy November the 13th, the Center for the History of the Book welcomed Professor Iain Donaldson from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh to speak about the important features of the modern book that derived from the early printed books created before the end of the sixteenth century. By providing examples through books found in the Royal College of Physicians’ Library, Professor Donaldson argued that many of the elements we see today in modern publishing are direct, or close indirect, descendants from those first printed books. Although they may look very different now, the functionality and look of these elements remain relatively unchanged. Specifically, those that favor the accessibility of readers seem to survive today, while those intended for the printer’s use have dwindled away with the inventions of new technologies and processes.


Features with direct descendants

These are those features found in both early printed books and modern books, with little difference between them. Typefaces, title page, pagination, illustration, preface, dedication, index and the now rare but still comparable ornamentation all exist in almost the same form as their original counterparts. There are obvious differences in context, such as the use of a dedication straying from a patron to an emotion support figure in modern books. Also illustration and its production are very different today, but the idea still remains the same and can be traced back to these early printed books.


Features with indirect descendants

Professor Donaldson also talked on those elements that are indirect descendants of the early printed book, or those that have evolved over time but can be seen to have this early source. These elements include rubrication, decorated capitals, colophon, signatures, apparatus for commentary and privileged.

Focusing specifically on rubrication, it was seen that this style of hand drawn capitalization and decoration transformed into the wood block capital, the cast printing blocks for capitals and finally result in the drop-case capitals that still exist today in the printed book. This tradition of creating an emphasis on the first letter, and word, of a chapter or paragraph is a descendant of individual rubrication that originally intended to copy the script of a manuscript.

Also the colophon was discussed in great detail in terms of it modern descendant in the title page. The original colophon was often found at the end of the work and often didn’t include useful information on the publisher or date.


Features which have disappeared apparently without descendants

This category might be the most interesting subject of the afternoon because it dealt with those elements that have virtually disappeared from modern print. Like said earlier, this is mostly those tools used by the printer for technical reasons that are no longer used. In this category you’ll find register (which disappeared early in the 16th century), imprimatur (which is partially replaced by legal deposit in some jurisdictions) and a catchword or direction. This direction would happen at the end of a recto and then repeated as the first word of the verso. In this way it seemed that the printer could double-check that the pages were all in place after the complicated printing process at the time. Today there is little need for this process of marking a next page as they can printed in order. Keeping in mind this list in comparison to the others, there are relatively fewer elements that have disappeared completely than those that are virtually the same or have been remade in some way.


Overall, this look at the earliest printed books versus what we find in today’s market is a fresh take on the history of the book. Often we are focused solely on the past and ignore the analysis between the modern book trade and its origins. This short talk delved deep into the many technical components of books that are essential to understand when going into the field and therefore Professor Donaldson’s explanation of elements as well as examples was a good grounding for anyone interested in the subject from multiple angles and backgrounds. Personally, as an MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, this was an “ah-ha” moment on many aspects of the subject. Although I was familiar with many of the elements discussed, it helped immensely to see examples from multiple sources and perspectives. I am grateful for the time Professor Donaldson spent on this research and specific talk from a very selfish personal level but also in terms of the discipline as a whole. These connections are ever valuable and essential when thinking in a modern context, of which I would argue all scholars must be mindful.

Report by Caitlin Holton, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.

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