University of Utah expert studies world’s oldest movable-type book

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A University of Utah researcher is leading a team to study the 14th-century Korean book called Jikji.

(University of Utah) Scans of pages from the Gutenberg Bible, top, and from Jikji, a Korean Buddhist book printed decades before Gutenberg’s work. A University of Utah researcher is among those conducting a study of the Korean book, believed to be the oldest book printed with metal movable type.

Ask most people what the oldest book made with metal movable type is, and they’ll probably answer Gutenberg’s Bible, printed around 1455 in Mainz, Germany.

It’s not, and a University of Utah librarian is part of a research project to substantiate what researchers say is the first such book, known as Jikji. .

“People should look at the big picture,” said Randy Silverman, preservation manager at the University of Utah Marriott Library and one of the two principal investigators on the collaborative project.From Jikji to Gutenberg.

Jikji is a Korean Buddhist book — the title translates to “point it straight” — that was printed in 1377. It tells “a compression of the history of the Buddhists,” Silverman said. “It tells how Buddhists attained enlightenment.”

The project – which involves 40 academics working in 14 different time zones around the world – aims to put the existence of Jikji at the forefront of the history of printing worldwide.

In a video explaining the effort, Silverman says they are “changing perspectives on the history of printing”.

To give context to the project’s mission, Silverman tells the story of a neighbor’s child on his street, who drew a sidewalk chalk picture of the planet, marked with important cultural milestones. Gutenberg was there, but Jikji was not.

It is Silverman’s hope, he said, that the next time this child draws a globe, Jikji will be included among the big milestones.

Silverman said he heard of Jikji a few years ago when he was invited by UNESCO to lecture in South Korea, Seoul and Cheongju, about 85 miles to the south – a place Silverman had never heard of before.

Cheongju is home to the Cheongju Ancient Printing Museum, which opened in 1992 next to the site of the original temple (Heungdeok) where Jikji was first printed. The museum was designed, Silverman said, to answer the question “How are you going to take care of Jikji?” »

Silverman said he left Cheongju with “an obligation to come back to America and talk about it, because it looked like I had been cheated. People should know that’s the story.

There is a story behind why Jikji is not as recognized as the Gutenberg Bible. This largely involves the lack of accessibility of Jikji’s only original copy.

The story continues that the book was taken from Korea by a French diplomat, Victor Collin de Plancy, in the early 1900s, was purchased by a collector in 1911, and was donated in 1950 to the French National Library. The library has not exhibited its copy of Jikji since the early 1970s.

The French and South Korean governments have been arguing for years for the place of the book. In 1989, French President François Mitterrand offered to send Jikji to Korea, if the Koreans agreed to import French high-speed rail technology; the deal reportedly fell through when library staff objected. Last November, a French minister of culture declared that her government would consider loaning Jikji to South Korea — provided the Korean government doesn’t try to seize the book and keep it there forever.

Silverman is adamant that he wants France and South Korea to be involved in the project he is leading – but he also noted that “there is not a Western intellectual position that does not think that there is a superiority”.

What Silverman said he and the other researchers are most interested in are the printing methods used to create the Jikji, including the metallic type.

“What is curious to me [is] it is printed the following year as a woodblock book,” said Silverman. “Wooden blocks and characters are used for different purposes, and making metal characters is really complicated.”

The book was printed using fairly complex Chinese characters. (The precursor to today’s Korean alphabet was not created until 75 years later.) The Woodblock type is easier to duplicate, he said, much like a modern photocopier, because the user can reference it and use it over and over again.

Over the next five years, the collaborative will host a science symposium at the Library of Congress and publish a 400-page catalog that will look at typeface, ink, paper, and binding, as well as design patterns. distribution of books in Asia. The hope is that in 2027 – the 650th anniversary of Jikji’s printing – the project will bring international exposure to nine research libraries in the United States, and 34 more in 14 other countries.

Part of the project is to compare Jikji and Gutenberg, to see how Korean and European printers of the 14th and 15th centuries differed in binding, ink and other aspects of printing.

“Humanity’s cultural advancement is tied to this investigation,” Silverman says. “We want to save ideas as a species because we love the idea of ​​advancement. We want to make it better for the next generation.

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