Tuesday 30 December 2014

The Value of the Printing Press to Genealogists

According to Wikipedia, “The world's first known movable type printing technology was invented and developed in China by the Han Chinese printer Bi Sheng between the years 1041 and 1048. In Korea, the movable metal type printing technique was invented in the early thirteenth century during the Goryeo Dynasty. The Goryeo Dynasty printed Jikji in 1377 by using a similar method. . . The invention of movable type mechanical printing technology in Europe is credited to the German printer Johannes Gutenberg in 1450.”

The latter, of course, is particularly important to Western Civilization, not to mention historians and genealogists. The expansion and use of Gutenberg’s printing press made for very quick set-ups of pages using moveable metal type and allowed the printing of thousands of pages per day. Copies of inexpensive books by leading scholars and religious leaders of the day, including the Bible, and textbooks for many subjects, were produced in large quantities resulting in widespread dissemination of knowledge and education of the masses, until then something only available to a few in the elite classes.

The first English-language book was printed in 1475. By 1500, printing presses in use across Europe had produced tens of millions of copies of books of all types.
Woodcut of a printing press in use around 1568; downloaded December 30, 2014 from Wikipedia: “At the left in the foreground, a "puller" removes a printed sheet from the press. The "beater" to his right is inking the forme. In the background, compositors are setting type.”
What was also made possible was the keeping and distribution of many types of records, not the least was information about births, marriages and deaths. While, for many decades and centuries afterward, parish records continued to be the main source of genealogical information, over time such records could be collated, printed, stored and made available to a large audience. Eventually even the Churches had printed forms on which to record names and dates.
The diffusion of the moveable-type printing press; downloaded December 30, 2014 from article by Jeremiah Dittmar titled Information Technology and economic change: The impact of the printing press. (2011).
Widespread printing carried with it the need for standardization in the spelling of common words and names and a consequent increase in literacy. People learned to recognize (read) and reproduce (write) their own language and, of course, their own names and with that, began to identify themselves on paper in a consistent manner. The English language underwent significant structuring as a result of the explosion of the printed word carrying with it the requirement for regularity of spelling, grammar and definitions. The first Dictionary of the English Language was published by Samuel Johnson in 1755, which became a hallmark in the organization of the language.

Most genealogists may find that consistency in spelling of their family names began with the spread of printing presses, the profusion of books available and the increase in literacy. What other aspects of normal lives might one envision happened with people having increased access to books and newspapers?

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.