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Tongguk Yi Sangguk chŏnjip. Korean anthology printed with woodblock.

From Jikji to Gutenberg

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This post is co-written by Jacob Nadal and Dan Paterson. Jacob Nadal is Director for Preservation, and his work focuses on creating a sustainable plan for keeping the Library’s collections available. Dan Paterson is a senior book conservator in the Preservation Directorate.  He works on materials from the Asian Division and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, providing conservation treatment primarily for early printed books and manuscripts.  He has been a member of the Jikji to Gutenberg team since 2021.

On April 13th and 14th, the Library of Congress hosted From Jikji to Gutenberg, the Scholarly Colloquium, a meeting of scholars, historians, conservators, and librarians from seven countries. The colloquium was part of the From Jikji to Gutenberg project originally conceived by Randy Silverman, Head of Preservation, at the University of Utah Marriot Library. From Jikji to Gutenberg began as an effort to promote understanding and awareness in the West about early printing with moveable type in Korea that pre-dates Gutenberg’s famous Bible. Jikji is the abbreviated title of the world’s oldest extant book made with moveable type, printed in Cheongju, Korea in 1377, preceding the Gutenberg Bible by 77 years.  Since the initial idea for the project, it has grown in size and scope to include more than 40 experts on type, print history, paper history, and book history.  The in-person meeting provided an opportunity for the team to plan a multi-venue exhibition devoted to the invention of moveable type printing which will take place in 2027, the 650th anniversary of the printing of Jikji. There will also be a catalogue produced in conjunction with the exhibition.  The project is now co-headed by Silverman and Dr. Lee, Seung-cheol, Director, R&D Division, UNESCO International Centre for Documentary Heritage in Cheongju.  In addition to Dr. Lee and Silverman, participants at the colloquium represented multiple institutions in Asia, Europe, and the U.S., including several Library of Congress staff members.  Along with two days of presentations, discussion, and sharing of research, team members were given a special viewing of the Gutenberg Bible, several early Korean books, and specimens of 15th century Korean movable type, all from the Library of Congress collections.  The following text is taken from the opening remarks for the colloquium by the Director of Preservation at the Library of Congress, Jacob Nadal:

Colloquium members viewing Library collection items including the Mainz Bible, a volume of the Gutenberg Bible, and cast Korean type characters. Photo by Dr. Ad Stijnman.

While it is generally recognized that Johannes Gutenberg printed the monumental 42-line Gutenberg Bible in Mainz, Germany about the year 1455 CE, it remains largely unknown outside of East Asia that the Diamond Sutra was printed from woodblocks in China in 868, or that Jikji , printed in 1377 in Cheongju, South Korea, is acknowledged as the oldest surviving book printed from moveable metal type. And while these facts in the history of printing are understood by specialists, this multi-disciplinary collaboration is an important step towards converting information that is known to experts into general knowledge.

photo of Jacob Nadal speaking at a podium flanked by colloquium members
Jacob Nadal, Director for Preservation welcoming colloquium members to the From Jikji to Gutenberg Scholarly Colloquim.

The research and work involved in telling the story of the invention of printing more fully is an example of how good scholarship is also inclusive scholarship. The story of Jikji and Gutenberg is a compelling story of how human creativity can flourish along similar lines in different times and places and is a powerful statement about our common desire to disseminate our ideas to the betterment of all. This is a compelling research effort that gives us new reason and new ways to ask questions about how ideas were exchanged, or how the choices people make about the means of recording and sharing information both shape and are shaped by their cultural contexts.

The Library of Congress has supported this project from its inception and has already benefitted from the scholarly exchange as part of this effort. The Library now better understands the importance of several Korean types among its most distinctive collections. These pieces of metal type are now recognized as being among the earliest surviving examples of Korean cast metal type held in America. The Library’s Conservation Division has carefully documented and rehoused this collection and is collaborating closely with the Library’s Asian Division, as well as with Korean scholars to gain further insight into the types’ age and provenance. Combined with conservation expertise regarding the Gutenberg Bible, the Library is pleased to be able to make meaningful contributions to this project.

cast metal square with Korean characters within their housing container.
Korean cast metal moveable type, 15th and 16th centuries. Photo by Dr. Ad Stijnman

Support from both the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities speaks to the worldwide encouragement underlying this first face-to-face meeting. This colloquium should help solidify plans for From Jikji to Gutenberg to publish a scholarly, 400-page exhibit catalog and coordinate multiple exhibits in libraries internationally in 2027, commemorating the 650th anniversary of the printing of Jikji. This collaboration between sister institutions and UNESCO’s International Centre for Documentary Heritage in Korea will help make clear to a broader audience what is generally known about the ancient roots of printing.

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