INF 7790: History of Books, Printing and Publishing

Credits:  3

Prerequisite(s):  None

Rationale for inclusion in curriculum

The library is the primary social institution through which literate societies retain contact with and control over their accumulated stock of recorded knowledge. Librarians are responsible for making this stock of knowledge, preserved in various forms of the book, available to current users and preserving it for future use. Librarians should understand how the artifacts they are responsible for were created, organized, disseminated, used, and preserved in successive historical periods. This understanding informs how artifacts are safely handled, read, interpreted, housed, and preserved. It is especially important in the digital environment for librarians to understand how previous communications revolutions, like the invention of printing, presented challenges and opportunities similar to those we face today in an increasingly digital environment.

Learning outcomes

The course explores the evolution of the book from ancient cuneiform tablets to today’s Kindle. You will gain a working knowledge of the continuity of the long evolution of the book in many of its forms. With emphasis on what D. F. McKenzie termed the “sociology of texts,” you will learn to use bibliographic approaches to understand the material makeup of books and discover the “human presence in any recorded text.” Every surviving book has a story to tell, even beyond the text and images presented within it. As book historians, you will learn how to examine books for evidence and how to interpret and express your findings. By the end of this course, students will be able to place various forms of the book within the broad context of human communication, foster a critical appreciation of the book as a technological instrument and a historical artifact, analyze the significance of the invention of printing, and analyze the implications of the digital revolution unfolding today.


The course covers the following topics: ancient books, woodblock printing in Asia, manuscripts in the European Middle Ages, printing with movable type in Asia and Europe, papermaking and bookbinding, handwriting and typeface styles, rare book and special collections librarianship, development of the newspaper, mechanized printing in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Arts and Crafts Movement and artists’ books, and the Internet and modern tablets and ebooks.

Course methodology

Endeavoring to be as “hands-on” in an online setting as possible, lectures and discussions are enhanced with videos and images of artifacts from the ancient world to the present. Students practice analyzing books through discussion questions focusing on sample artifacts and writing short papers on historically significant books and printers. For the final assignment, students apply the skills they have learned through the course and write a history of a specific book.

Bases for evaluation of student performance

Short papers, class participation through Canvas’s discussion board, and a final project.


Galbraith, Steven K. A Brief History of the Book: From Tablet to Tablet. Libraries Unlimited, 2020.

Additional readings are available through Canvas.