The Digital Book Revolution

A Generational Divide

Since the invention of the manuscript, written texts have been an important part of understanding culture at any point in history. In the 21st century, books are as readily available as food, water, or any basic human need. However, the medium of these scripts has evolved over the past few centuries. While individuals in the medieval era, mainly had access to scrolls, bound books, and folios, today the book can be ‘read,’ in countless different ways. A 2019 study, from Pew Trusts, found that Generation Z, is the most literate of any prior generation, it can be argued that the era of electronic books, is changing the way we read, forever. 

As noted in the “Past in Pixels,” reading:

“we now confront a world where knowledge of books in the form they have been known for five and a half centuries is declining. The angle of this decline will increase; the only questions are the speed at which this will happen in the near future, and how printed books will relate to the possibilities of electronic media.” 

While the digital book has the ability to make the world more accessible, it also possesses the ability to alter the way generations read. As noted previously, children from Generation Z, approximately being born between 1997-2012, are one of the most literate. However, inventions like audiobooks, e-books, and movie adaptations, have altered the way in which future generations read. Those born in the year 1997 and later, have grown up with the internet. While this is an advantage, as having a deep understanding of the online world is essential to surviving in the modern world, dependence on digital mediums will forever alter the way we understand the world. 

The number of US Gen Z digital buyers will surpass 37 million in 2021. - Insider Intelligence
Sourced from: Insiders Intelligence


Many children seldom read print books, opting for the accessibility digital versions offer. Furthermore, older generations also have begun to develop attachments to digital mediums. Many working professionals opt for e-books or audiobooks, as they are able to ‘read,’ while completing everyday tasks. People in the 21st century, thrive off of multitasking; as we become more digital, our attention spans decrease and thus require more stimulation, in order to absorb information. As such, audiobooks, have allowed us to read, without, having to take time out of our daily tasks. 

In the medieval era, reading was more of an experience. Creating a book was a strenuous process and was treated as such. One area where books were readily accessible, were religious sanctuaries, like churches, mosques, and synagogues. At this time, fewer individuals were literate, so books acted as reference points for religious speakers at religious services. As the world progressed to be more literate, these books began to have more meaning in many social circles. Because entertainment was limited, people in the medieval world, needed to find recreation in other areas. As such, reading became a way for them to ‘escape,’ from their lives, and become more connected to the god they believed in. When comparing the generations born into the 21st century to the medieval world, we see a juxtaposition in the way generations value books. As literacy grows, it can be argued that the value we palace on reading decreases. Modern generations lose joy in reading, as access becomes easier. With the world at our fingertips, we have become lazy to what previous generations would have marveled at. 


The Print Revolution 

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The printing revolution for many historians occurred in 1436 when Johannes Gutenberg began work on the invention of a new printing press that allowed molding of new type blocks from a uniform template that allowed for the creation of high-quality printed books. From this, emerged the Gutenberg bible, which changed the way books were printed forever. 

The printing press was a major factor in the establishment of the protestant reformation and scientific revolution. The printing press made authorship more meaningful and profitable, as it reduce the labor costs associated with creating a text. Gutenberg’s invention increased literacy, as access to books was now more accessible for the working class. As individuals became more literate, they began to challenge the world they once knew, in order to pursue more ‘meaning,’ in their lives. 

As noted by National Geographic: The Protestant Reformation was a religious reform movement that swept through Europe in the 1500s. It resulted in the creation of a branch of Christianity called Protestantism, a name used collectively to refer to the many religious groups that separated from the Roman Catholic Church due to differences in doctrine.

Martin Luther, a teacher, and a monk published a document he called the 95 Theses. The document was a series of 95 ideas that critiqued Christianity, inviting individuals to debate and learn from his comments. These ideas were controversial because they directly contradicted the Catholic Church’s goals. The invention of the printing press, allowed this to be spread across Europe, which caused a mass shift in the collective consciousness. Like the invention of social media, the 95 Theses, encouraged like-minded individuals to come together. 

As individuals became less dependant on religious entities, they began to look for joy in other mediums. Scientists and non-fiction works, became more common, as thus changed the way society interpreted the written word. In this, we can draw another parallel to modern evolutions in books. 

The 21st century, as seen a push for accessibility and equality for all. Those who cannot afford print books, or who are unable to read in the traditional manner, are now able to access more books than ever before. Like in Martin Luther’s time, the digital revolution, has caused its own type of reform. However, this revolution is less so one that pushes for a shift in collective ideas, the modern world has shown us the importance of making knowledge accessible for everyone, at any time. 

The world of Gutenberg and Luther was one that wished to make the world more literate and open to the problems facing our world. The digital era has taken these concepts and amplified them tenfold. Today, we can read books on any device, and access information in any form we desire. While our dependency on traditional novels has decreased, now more than ever, books are available in endless ways. As such, we can draw connections between revolutions in printing, and ones in the creations of digital novels. 

The future of the book is unclear. However, hypothesizing from the trends of the past, we can infer that as our world becomes more digital, we will see future generations further evolve to make literature more accessible for any and every group, who wishes to learn.


Physical Trials of Creating a Manuscript: Reflections on Working in the Book Arts Lab

Thus far it is entirely unclear to me why the human race didn’t give up writing long before we reached the printing press. Each step in recreating my folio makes me question further and further how it ever reached the point of completion. Each week I’ve written a portion of this blog to record my thoughts on that week’s book arts lab work.

The measuring process of my manuscript was not too difficult I got the basics done quickly and began to measure random things on my page like the height of the figures in the roundel, the length of the peacock etc. Even with all of my measuring of random objects there were still areas I missed which I realized when we went to draw up our drafts of the manuscript recreation. There was a certain amount of relaxation in tracing out the page. The methodical nature of the work made me wonder if Monks created manuscripts as a method of contemplation. The biggest problem I faced with measuring out the page was the roundel. I had measured the circle, but it was not even al the way around. I ended up with an odd freehand sketch of a circle. I am not sure how roundels were made, and I plan on researching this before the final recreation to see if they used any drawing device or if it was free handed.

Our work with quills was much different then I thought it would be. The process Larry described about the time it takes to create the quill by curing it and having it dry was way more complex then I would have imagined. He mentioned a method of using hot sand for the curing process that has not been consistently recreated in modern times. Luckily there is also the microwave method, so who needs sand. Feathers seemed like such an archaic writing tool, it hadn’t occurred to me that they did much with them to use as pens but clearly I was mistaken.

Ink was the first problem—too much and it would run or making the lettering larger. I had the ink leak through the paper on a few occasions. As we have discussed in class since the process of leaking ink encouraging different writing surfaces and changed ink. The leaking happened less once I got used to the feeling of the quill and played with pressure and turning of the point. The instruction for the individual letters had mixed results. Knowing the stroke order helped with some letters but didn’t for others. Practice helped more in the cases the instructions didn’t. I tried to determine if lifting the pen completely after each stroke was helpful but it wasn’t consistent. I realized how many intricacies scribes must have known consistently produce writing in their medium.

When writing with the quill I enjoyed dipping the pen into the ink and adding the flourishes to my letters. It felt more like painting a line drawing then actual writing. I dipped my pen back into the ink yet again to finish off the last of the letter. It looked nice I thought so I moved on to the next letter. I was stuck as a dipped my quill in for the tenth time to finish one word that there were a lot of letters on this page. That’s how I was looking at the page now. Not as words and sentences but as letters and strokes. Suddenly my “decoration heavy” manuscript seemed a lot more writing dense then I first considered. Moreover, I wasn’t writing as small as what my manuscript had been- in fact I couldn’t seem to get the letters that small without the ink blotting together to ruin the look of the flourishes. The sheer volume of work that is must have taken to complete a manuscript like mine, let a lot a whole book of pages just like it, was more then I had initially considered.

The day we worked on illuminated letters and decoration I was relieved. These letters were supposed to take a long time. At first, I decided to try it without pencil sketches underneath. This caused some trouble. The illuminated letters were entirely different in form from the regular text so the information I learned last week couldn’t help me. I found that adding the coloured ink made the letters look infinitely more legitimate. While we weren’t afforded the time in the book arts lab, I think that scribes would have done the colours layer by layer, waiting for the ink to fully dry before adding the next colour. I think for my manuscript the decoration in the boarders was painted, I’m not entirely sure on this and it may have been inked in parts, but I’ve determined in my work with a quill it would have been more efficient to paint it sections of it and do details in ink.

Bookbinding was the task I found the easiest so far. Of course, I has the benefit of modern paper, cutting machines, and thread. All of which is more consistent and reliable then older methods would have been. Throughout this entire process I have learned the time, skill, and variety needed to produce a manuscript.

Rubrication and Illustration: Misconceptions, Reality and Art

Illustration is a significant part of my manuscript and has been the major focus for my research. As such the readings on rubrication and illustration left me with a lot to consider for my manuscript. When I first did the reading of Driver and Orr I was struck with the reality of decoration that was very different from my own conceptions. My conception of manuscript creation was this image of a monk alone in a room slowly bit by bit completing each section on the manuscript.  Driver and Orr discuss the collaboration that took place on a manuscript. The manuscript was sent around, and different people would use their different skills to produce the different parts of the manuscripts.

Despite my initial and incorrect mental image of the past I found that this explanation actually made a lot of sense with modern thinking. In the modern conception of how books and in fact the majority of consumed products are made it is assumed that multiple people work on it. In a book that is published now I expect to see an author, a cover designer, a publisher, an editor, and more. During the book dissection at the start of this class we reviewed all of the aspects that went into modern books and none of that was much of a surprise for me.  If one author were to do multiple roles to produce a book this would be a rare thing that is considered quite impressive. It makes sense that medieval creators would approach the complex manuscripts in the same way. In looking at my manuscript I can see evidence for multiple hands in the different artistic elements. The roundels have a very different style from the figures inside the illuminated letters. This differs of course from the text which could have been done by a different set of hand entirely, and the same goes for the border details and flourishes.


Yet I still found the information Driver and Orr presented surprised me. Why is that? Why did I conceptualize the past so separately from the methods of today? I think that in learning about the past in my degree I am used to thinking about the past (particularly the ancient past) as completely separate from today. I think about modern history as being in a similar world to my own. I’m unsure of how the medieval past fits into modern thinking. It made me recall the first reading of the year, The Devil’s Historian, which demonstrated how we conceptualize the medieval past all wrong, particularly due to misrepresentations of it. I feel I am constantly being reintroduced to that idea throughout this course.


Driver and Orr then go on to develop more on the advancement of images with printing. During the switch to print culture pictures went from manuscript to printing and back again. This concept was more familiar to me. The transition of technology is a problem that is easy to compare to the modern world. I would imagine there could have been a preference for the manuscript images over the printed ones, there might have been a problem in early printing that made the images bad or difficult to produce. While new technology is always useful or intriguing there are still places for older methods to stay relevant. Think of how film cameras are very popular now despite everyone having a good quality camera on their phone. Each method has its place and a use, even if one is newer.


In relation to the images themselves Driver and Orr mention that images were often copied from edition to edition even if the text was changed. How images and design materials (like woodcuts) would be reused with no connection to the text. They go onto suggest that this might mean that readers were familiar with “a world of visual images” that functioned separately from the text. I cannot think of a modern equivalent for this. Images accompanying a text have clear relations to each other in our times, it is part of the way we read and understand. This medieval system of understanding images is, to me as a historian, frustrating and fascinating. Frustrating because of how much I would like to understand the images in the same way they would have, but I am damned by time. Fascinating because the mere existence of such a system is exactly why I find history so interesting.

In my manuscript I began to try to decode some of the images myself. The boarder decoration in my manuscript is rich with images. It contains a peacock and peahen, many kinds of flowers, vines and flourishes. I believe the roundels are recalling standard biblical iconography. So, the question is do I have the kind of manuscript that is associated with the text or the kind where the images function on their own. I am researching this very question. The answer of course would lie within understanding text. In considering the text I began to think how books are art.


Books are art. This isn’t necessarily a bold claim, an unfounded claim, or an unstated claim but it’s a new way for me to think of the ‘books’ within this class. It seems obvious when we see a page with an image that that page is art. What I mean to say is that the very existence of the book is art. Everything within a manuscript seems to demonstrate that it is art. The mis-en-page is a form of art. The text itself is a form of art. This was proven to me in our readings on scripts that explained how the different styles and smallest flourishes can help find the date and origin of the manuscript. Just like how different artistic styles are used in art history to do similar dating and originating. Illuminated letters stand out for their beauty, colour and designs but all of that also serves a function by organizing the page and separating the text. While the text and images in a manuscript might not always be related, they should always be considered the artistic representation form of the text that they are.

The Functions of Punctuation

“Punctuation is and has always been a personal matter.”

I think all of my high school English teachers would have a heart attack if they heard that sentence. They would all probably also have had a problem with the discussions that we had in class about the modern uses of punctuation and the ways that emojis may be used as punctuation. Being taught the uses of punctuation in a fairly strict way, I never thought that something as basic as punctuation could be controversial but here we are. I also never thought that I would consider punctuation to be anything but basic but I am quickly discovering that that may not be the case after all. 

The modern uses of punctuation are so varied that it starts to make me wonder how I ever thought that punctuation was a simple topic. One of the biggest examples that was brought up during our class discussion was the difference between punctuation in a formal setting and punctuation in an informal setting. For example, we all agreed that full punctuation is used in emails, essays, basically anything where you want to look more professional. The divide started to happen when we discussed the uses of punctuation in social media and personal texts. Most of us agreed that the use of a period at the end of a text message makes the message seem more serious and might signify that the person is angry or stern, even when that may not be the case (although a few of us thought that punctuation in a text was normal and didn’t necessarily mean anything). In the same sense we discussed that the usage of an exclamation mark can change too (as in at times we might use more than one to really show how excited we are and that some of us have to limit how many we use at a given time). It is interesting to me that we have this clear distinction between times where punctuation is “appropriate” and when it might even come across as rude to use. The main use of “rude” punctuation, in my opinion at least, is the use of a single question mark to signify that someone wants you to answer their text. For some reason, the use of punctuation as a way to show that you want me to answer your text makes me not want to answer more. This bizarre association with a single punctuation mark is another way that we now have a strange relationship with the uses of punctuation.

Another point of conversation that was really interesting to me was the point that emojis may be considered to be a type of punctuation for us. For instance, an exclamation mark may be used to signify excitement or emphasis on a topic but now we have the introduction of emojis that can demonstrate the same thing (maybe even more precisely). Instead of using an exclamation mark to show that you are excited about something, there are a wide variety of emojis that can be used instead to show excitement and happiness. The same thing can be said for anger, disgust, and sadness. In informal settings we have moved away from using our words and punctuation to show what we are feeling and have instead moved to ending our sentences with emojis that more concisely show the same thing. Is this because of the urge to have more quickly understood meanings? Is it because we have gotten lazy in our writing and choose to rely on other things to express ourselves? 

If emojis are being used as a way to avoid punctuation, it is interesting to see the ways that we use emojis on their own, especially in my personal case. As I mentioned before, I don’t like when people just send me question marks to show that I still haven’t answered them but somehow I think it’s okay when it comes to emojis. For instance, my siblings and I all have a group chat on Facebook where we have a little poop emoji that we use to talk to each other. There are times where we haven’t spoken in months and then somebody will just send an emoji and another one of us will send one back. How is it that this form of communication is okay and even welcomed but sending a normal piece of punctuation is not okay?

Back to the original statement, though, how is punctuation a personal matter? In terms of writing, as M.B. Parkes said, some authors are very particular in their uses of punctuation while others only use it to the extent of making themselves understand their own writing. Even more modern, we all have different ways that we use punctuation in informal settings, some of us choosing to use emojis, some using regular punctuation, some choosing to use nothing at all. Punctuation can even lead to different feelings, depending on where we see it (especially in informal settings). It is so interesting to me that we are taught the uses of the period, the exclamation mark, commas, and yet we all have our own styles of using it and emotions that we feel when using them. At least in my education, I have always been taught to use my words to express things and that punctuation is just used to end sentences and connect clauses but somehow it is much more than that. 


Parkes, M.B. “Introduction.” In Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of  Punctuation in the West, 5. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.

The Process of Recreation

The entire process of recreating a manuscript has given me an entirely new appreciation for the work that came before the invention of modern printing and automated work. From my own (in)experience, there is so much that goes into the creation of a manuscript that I hadn’t realized was necessary. In order to fully express the amount of things that were a surprise to me I have created a little step by step guide to the things that I missed (and why I should have realized I would need them).

Part One: Measuring the Folio

We were told to measure anything and everything that we could. While this felt fairly straightforward to me, I still managed to miss some fairly important measurements that made the next step of the process incredibly difficult to figure out. 

Using 63v from my manuscript, it is easy to tell that there are a lot of important things to be measured in order to get the recreation right. The first thing that was necessary to measure was the size of the page (53cm by 34.5cm), however it became a struggle to recreate when I realized that the damage that has occurred over time made it so that the two sides were actually different sizes by a significant margin. This led to me wondering if I should try to recreate it as it may have been originally (with the pages being about the same length) or if I should use these different sizes to recreate its current state (and use the actual sizes to line up the page contents). In the end I decided to use the sizes that I had in front of me in the hopes that they would make it easier to rule later.

Continuing from what I thought was a good start, I measured all the letters in the large section of text, the space between the staff lines, the size of the music notes, the decorated ‘D’, and so on. However, in my measuring I somehow forgot to measure the margins on the top and bottom and the size of the lines where the lyrics sat. 

Part Two: Ruling

I went into the Book Arts Lab thinking that the ruling was going to be a fun experience that was going to let me get started on my manuscript recreation and everything was going to be great. It was decidedly not fun. Especially when my missed measurements from Part One became apparent.

After trying my best to guess the measurements and draw out what I thought would work for the margins that I had missed, I found that the pricking itself was much harder than it looked. Making the holes themselves was easy enough but trying to keep the holes the correct distance apart so as to not change my measurements and lines became very hard, especially when I was already guessing what it should look like. I will be honest in saying that I sat at that table questioning my choices and how books were ever made in the past with all the small, easily missed details there were in creating them.

Part Three: The Transcription and Bookhands

Although the measurements and ruling made me seriously question my choices, the transcription was a whole new game of frustration that I wasn’t ready for. After having my manuscript described as “the dog’s breakfast” in terms of lettering I was so close to not doing the transcription and pretending I knew what I was doing…only to find out that my lettering would seriously suffer if I didn’t know what letters I was actually trying to create. 

Learning about the ways that you can see the brush strokes in letters and the way that calligraphy is so much more complicated than modern handwriting with pens and pencils was so interesting to me. But of course that meant I had to start another difficult journey of pulling apart my manuscript, analyzing brush strokes and shapes when some of the letters did not resemble any letter. It was also interesting to discover that no one has pen nibs that were the right size for the letters that I was dealing with. Apparently nibs only get so large now and it was a mystery to us all how I was going to write some of these massive letters. Despite this, I thought that I did a pretty good job of recreating the parts that I could decipher.

Part Four: The Aftermath

At the end of the day, this experience was actually a lot of fun and has taught me so much more about book making in the Middle Ages than reading a textbook on it would have. The frustration that I felt every step along the way really showed me the amount of work these scribes and bookbinders would have had to do to get entire books done – not even just a single page like I have been working with. What made me appreciate this even more is the fact that I was struggling with recreation, not even making my own manuscript from nothing, having to measure out how many words I can fit on a line and when I should be using shorthand instead of a full word. This process has left me with more questions than answers. How did anyone get a book finished? How many people did it take to complete some of these monstrous manuscripts that we have? Who was the first person to use these processes and how did others react to the work being suggested? Did anyone else have the urge to throw things like I did? I knew creating books in the past was by no means easy but this process has seriously made me wonder how we ever got to the point that we did. 

Looking back on the experience, it really was a learning experience and looking back on it so harshly is just a product of my own inexperience. I would be interested in seeing some of these scribes first attempts at ruling and measuring out their pages, especially seeing as they would have been learning in a time where their materials were so much more valuable. I have the privilege of being able to make as many mistakes as I want and being able to just go back and restart but that might not have been an option for most scribes. As a whole, I have more questions that will likely never be answered but it has opened my eyes just a little bit more to the invention of bound books and the progression to modern books.