I’ve always been fascinated by stories. Despite having been born to very scientifically minded parents I struggled to get excited over chemistry and physics. Novels were always my favourite and I spent many solitary summers sat under trees making friends with ink on paper. I love the insight fiction gives me and I’ve never lost that sense of wonder you find when a book lets you into someone else’s world.
But my life, indeed all of our lives, would be very different if not for the pioneering work of one German – Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg revolutionised the book industry during the mid 1450s. Before the introduction of his – the very first – printing press with moveable metal type, books were exclusively reserved for a privileged few and no ordinary child had the luxury of literary escapism. Indeed, Gutenberg’s press offered the first viable alternative to either hand copying or engraved wooden block-printing. This may well have been one of the most important inventions to redefine social and cultural norms in the West.
There is great power in the printed word. The strict monitoring and fundamental censorship of printers which we see across Early Modern Britain reflects this power. Print, in effect, has the capacity to mobilise thought, at times dangerous and rebellious thought, across great distances. In 15th century Europe, it was to become inextricably tied up with the Renaissance and Luther’s Reformation. Certainly, prior to Gutenberg’s design, the incredible expense involved in producing printed texts had allowed them – and the knowledge they contained – to be largely monopolised by the Catholic Church and its supporters. This, in turn, helped to preserve the status quo and associated imbalance of wealth.
With the development of Gutenberg’s comparatively quick and economical press came the increased distribution of knowledge. Alongside the religious and – at this time unavoidably connected – political implications, came the significant promise of cultural revolution. It was this man’s invention which ultimately led to the establishment of our nation’s long-term literary affair. Without Gutenberg I would never have found the bookish solace that fuelled my childhood dreams nor discovered my passion for publishing.
To overstate the value of this man and his invention is difficult for a self-confessed book lover. It is perhaps not so surprising then that my discovery of the wonderful Edward Clark Collection at Edinburgh Napier was such a joy. To have access to over 5000 items documenting the history of Western printing is an invaluable tool for any invested publishing student. Here are examples of the most beautifully printed and illustrated texts ranging from the 15th century onwards and providing amazing insight into the historical development of the book. What is more, here lies a real, preserved page of an original, 15th century Gutenberg Bible – go and see it.
Located in the heart of Napier’s Merchiston Campus, this academic source is easily accessible to students and offers practical demonstrations of printing and typographical techniques. It is a hidden treasure in a modern and vocationally-focused university and it is the most amazing of spaces. As Napier publishing students we not only owe a debt to Gutenberg for allowing the development of the commercial book trade, but also to Edward Clark and the custodians of his legacy – the Edward Clark Collection. It is important that we recognise these debts and utilise what is made available to us. For this reason, I highly recommend you visit the Edward Clark Collection and pay homage to Gutenberg’s great, and revolutionary gift.
The Edward Clark Collection is located at the Edinburgh Napier Merchiston Campus. Academics are welcomed to visit the Collection. Appointments can be made through the Merchiston Campus Library or via Marian Kirton, Information Services Advisor.