Two 'mass media' revolutions converge

Gutenberg Digital pays tribute to the inventor of the letterpress and adds interactivity to the first machine-printed texts.

While the field of information delivery has gone through some major revolutions over the last five or ten decades, radio, television, and the Internet are mere newcomers when compared to the first great step toward "mass media" taken a little over 500 years ago. In fact, the invention of letterpress printing made such an impact on our world that Johann Gutenberg was declared the "Man of the Millennium" in a London Times of survey of 100 world leaders, artists, and scientists taken at the turn of the most recent century. (By comparison, Shakespeare placed second, and Leonardo da Vinci, fourth). To mark the 600th anniversary of Gutenberg's "official" birth in 1400 (the real date is unknown), the Göttingen State and University Library of Lower Saxony scanned their copy of the Gutenberg Bible, added some interactive features, background information and contemporary documents, and made the resulting package available on CD-ROM and the Internet. For us surfers, this meeting of two revolutions in information technology is based at Gutenberg Digital.

Available in both English and German versions, Gutenberg Digital greets its visitors with a "Note on Use and Reproduction" (copyright declaration), and then headlines the index page with a brief introduction, and has instructions on the use of the site's interactive features. (Help links are standing-by throughout the site, so you won't need to commit anything to memory.) It soon becomes evident that the design of the website is fairly basic, but this is a result of vintage more than planning. While not quite as venerable as its subject matter, the website does date back to 2000 (which, in Web terms, may actually make it more venerable than the print edition). Still, the Gutenberg Bible hasn't undergone any revisions in the last six years, so the production's vintage won't present any sort of handicap to touring the content.

The premier exhibits of the site are three "Digitised Documents" - The Göttingen Bible (one of only four complete vellum editions in existence), the Model Book (an instruction manual for artists entrusted with illuminating the illuminated manuscripts), and the Helmasperger Notarial Instrument (a piece of behind-the-scenes history resulting from a falling out between Gutenberg and his financial backer, Johannes Fust). All 1282 pages of the Göttingen Bible (printed circa 1454) are available for impressively detailed examination, and accessible in one- or two-page spreads. A pull-down menu offers direct access to each chapter in the two-volume masterwork, and thumbnails of each page link to full-screen images of single pages - revealing scans so accurate that one can see print showing through from the back side of each sheet.

As impressive as the scans are, unless you're skilled at reading medieval German, you won't be getting much from the actual text of the exhibit. But the illustrations in the Göttingen Model Book offer something a bit more universally accessible, as well as a translation of the content. Like the Bible, the Model Book exhibit presents its 12-page publication via thumbnails linking to larger images, but in this case each page is also accompanied by an English version of the author's instructions. Art and text are also brought together in Illumination - in which visitors can compare the Model Book samples to a zoomable selection of finished artworks from the Bible. (The interactive interface may not work with all browsers, but keyboard alternatives are provided to ensure that everyone can get a close look at the exhibits.) Illumination also offers a "Detailed View" section, which features a series of individual pages from the Bible, with the illustrations "lifting off" the page and enlarging with a click of the mouse.

The final scanned document is the Helmasperger Notarial Instrument, which records a monetary dispute that eventually led to the seizure of Gutenberg's printing press for unpaid debts. (Some three hundred years after its creation, this document helped refute rival claims to the title of 'inventor of letterpress printing.') Like the section on the Model Book, this exhibit provides an English translation of the text, and also adds curatorial commentary on some of the more important passages.

And there's more to the site than tours of scanned documents. To offer some historical context for the artifacts, Gutenberg and his Impact investigates what little is known of the man's own life, explains 'pre-Gutenberg' copying techniques as well as letterpress printing, and then records the spread and cultural repercussions of printing after Gutenberg. Finally, Passages from the Bible offers a collection of well known Bible excerpts, with the Vulgate text of the Gutenberg version alongside translations in the visitor's choice of five languages.

While it would be well nigh impossible to overstate the impact of radio and television on mass media, the Internet is the first medium since the letterpress to have had such a revolutionary influence on the dissemination of the printed word. It seems only fitting that one revolution should help preserve the memory of the other, and even as this site approaches its own medium's definition of ancient history, it still serves its subject - and its audience - admirably.

Gutenberg Digital can be found at

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