Latest Research 19th Century Masterfile

The History of Books: Early Forms


The story of how books have adapted and developed over the centuries is an important story in the rise of civilization. Books have provided individuals a way to communicate with future generations, influence thought over centuries, and spread religious and cultural trends that shape how our world looks from day to day.

Part 1 of our brief overview of the history of books captures some of the most influential inventions in ancient times.


Clay tablets are believed to have come into use as far back as 3400 B.C. in Sumer (now Iraq) and some surrounding areas. Using clay from rivers for the surface, and styli cut from reeds to make marks on them, ancient cultures developed symbols to represent language. Clay tablets are one of the first tools that enabled the shift from sharing stories and ideas orally, to recording them in writing.

Clay tablets were made for a steady medium, easy enough to create and reliably long-lasting. They were not well suited for lengthy texts though, as there’s a practical limit on the size of a clay tablet a person can handle and store. Few tablets held more than 400 lines.

Wax tablets stayed in regular use far longer than clay tablets, primarily in Greece and Rome. A common form was the diptych, a joined pair of two wax tablets that could be opened and closed. The base of the wax tablet was typically wood with an upraised border and wax was poured into the center to create a writing surface. Part of their staying power was due to the ease of re-use, meaning they were used more often for day-to-day utilitarian purposes than recording stories to share with future generations.


The most famous library in history didn’t contain any books as we know them. The Library of Alexandria was filled with scrolls. Made at different points in history and geography, with silk, paper, and papyrus, scrolls could typically contain longer pieces of writing than tablets. Many scrolls reached lengths of up to 40 meters, and they could always be extended if more length was needed.

The Library of Alexandria held up to 700,000 papyrus scrolls, serving as a potent symbol of the dominance of the form in its time. Scrolls were also in regular use in East Asia, more commonly made of silk, until paper took over in the 2nd-century A.D.


While not a form of book in and of itself, the palimpsest was an object created out of utility when paper and papyrus were rare and expensive. In order to conserve resources, people would scrape or wash off the words originally printed on a scroll, tablet or codex (a form to be discussed further in part 2) and write over them with the new text.

Palimpsests today offer a fascinating glimpse into texts from two or more periods at a time. Certain modern technologies and techniques have made the process of reading the original text on a palimpsest easier. As the technology to read them has improved, some valuable palimpsests have revealed texts to scholars otherwise lost to history. One example of this is the Archimedes Palimpsest; researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University retrieved some four-fifths of the text of the Archimedes Palimpsest and new technologies are being employed to retrieve the remaining fifth.

Check back soon for Part 2, where we’ll explore the modern history of the book.

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