Young Readers Ask About Gutenberg and the Printing Press vs. Digital

The Printing Press, Out-of-Work Scribes and eBooks

Stack of books next to ereader
••• Print vs. Digital. Westend61 / Getty Images

Print versus digital is a huge topic for all of the book publishing industry these days — but I recently got a letter from readers in Vietnam asking questions that helped me put a bit of historic perspective on the topic.

My two inquirers are students and were so extremely polite, charming and grateful that I agreed to answer their questions — and they agreed to let me publish their letter and my response:

Hello, our names are Haryoung C and Winnie Z. We are currently 7th-grade students studying the Renaissance at Saigon South International School in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

We read your paper on the Johann Gutenberg and the Invention of the Printing Press, and we had to some questions related to it. So we decided to send you an email…We were hoping that you, as an expert, could answer a few questions to help us with our project. Here are the questions:

Haryoung & Winnie: Everything we have come across [refers to] the positive consequences of the printing press. In your opinion, what were the negative consequences?

Valerie: Change comes with new technology, and the value of change is subjective (that is, it depends on who you talk to).

For me, a book lover, the invention of the printing press was very positive and for civilization as a whole, it was positive, because the books and other materials that were printed helped spread ideas and stories and exchange cultures as had never happened before.

But for all those scribes in Gutenberg’s time whose jobs were to hand-copy books? Well, the printing press put them out of work, so they probably didn’t see it as positive.

Haryoung & Winnie: After the mention of the refinery of the printing press by Leonardo Da Vinci, there is not much information about how the printing press was developed to today.

Could you briefly explain how the printing press developed to the modern world?

Valerie: I am not an expert in this field - but my colleague at provided this timeline of printing, which may be useful to you. Also, one of my favorite museums, The Morgan Library, has an extensive collection related to the written word, and you may find information and images useful for your presentation.

Haryoung & Winnie: In your expert opinion, do you think that printing press is still relevant to our world today? (Even though electronic printing replaced this kind of printing, do you still think that the original kind of printing is important currently?)

Valerie: Yes, print technology is still very relevant. [When] I visited the BookExpo America (a convention of book publishing professionals) here in New York City, there were plenty of printed books!

As happened in Gutenberg’s time, digital technology has changed the way we readers interact with the written word and the importance of print will no doubt continue to change in years to come, but right now most book-lovers and other readers I know read on a combination of both ebook and print. News changes so fast that digital seems to make more sense, but many still prefer to read a printed book, though digital books have made carrying many “books” (to go on a vacation trip, for example), very convenient.

Two other thoughts:

1. Much of what is digital is ephemeral, so digital preservation and archiving of important material (for example, early copies of authors’ manuscripts or important documents for study or historic purposes), is challenging, so the work of librarians and other archivists who manage and preserve collections are necessarily changing the way they work.

Also, digital requires electricity - something that not everyone in all parts of the world has easy access to, or that everyone can count on in an emergency. Plus, it requires equipment which, again, takes resources.

2. Print also has a place among artists. Here in the U.S. old technologies such as letterpress are very popular for greeting cards. In those cards, each one is individually printed and the touch of the artist is visible in the finished work and that makes it special.

Haryoung & Winnie: We absolutely appreciate your time.

Valerie: You are most welcome.