Printing museums: records of civilization

Yannis A. Phillis, Technical University of Crete, Chania, Greece

Text of a paper given by Yannis Phillis at the conference of the Association of European Printing Museums, Making history: collections, collectors and the cultural role of printing museums, Museum of Typography, Chania, (Crete, Greece), 11-14 May 2017.


According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, museum is a place for the Muses, in Greek Μουσεĩον.  A museum ‘is an institution that cares for (conserves) a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance.’ [1] Most museums make these items available for public viewing. Worldwide there are about 55,000 museums. We have numerous types of museums such as the Acropolis Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Fortress Museum of Salzburg (where weapons, armour, and instruments of torture are exhibited), the Museum of Typography in Chania and so on.

Why do we need museums? First and foremost, to keep stories and memories of our civilization alive.

Second, to feel the continuity of time. Where we come from and where we are heading. Most of us need to belong somewhere: a nation, a religious group, a political party, a soccer club. This need goes back to our evolutionary adaptation to belong to a group for simple reasons of survival. At the same time, we need a story or myth of this ‘somewhere’. Museums preserve such stories and myths.

Third, there is always an element of nostalgia of the heroic ‘good old days’ in museum collections, despite the fact that no one can or wishes to return to those days.

Fourth, we use museums for research.


Printing by movable type appeared around 1439 thanks to Gutenberg, from which time the dissemination of knowledge began to change rapidly. The famous Gutenberg Bible came out in 1455. Thereafter printing spread like wildfire. The number of European printed books jumped from just a few before Gutenberg to 1 billion in the eighteenth century. Unesco has estimated the number of new book titles per year at 2,200,000.[2]

The wider public had access to any kind of knowledge and the religious and political establishments saw that as a threat to their interests. In the sixteenth century Ottoman Empire it became a sin to print religious material. Jews were banned from German printing guilds. The Roman Catholic martyr William Carter printed a religious book of Dr. Gregory Martin in 1580 in Protestant England. In this book there was a sentence that was erroneously construed as incitement to kill the queen of England. He was imprisoned, tortured and executed in 1584.

The Nazis burned ‘degenerate works’ by Jewish authors such as Mann, Proust, and Marx. The US government burned in the 1950s six tons of Wilhelm Reich’s books. In 1955 the authorities burned large numbers of a comic book in Denmark. In 1967 the Junta of Greece banned the music of Theodorakis as well as many ‘communist’ books. In 1973 in Chile Pinochet ordered the burning of hundreds of books. In 1992 the Bosnian National Library was burned down by soldiers of the Serbian general Ratko Mladic.

However, the tradition of fearing and banning the written word is much older. The Chinese emperor Qin Shin Huang of the Qin Dynasty in 210 BCE, ordered the burning of the books of Confucius and burial alive of Confucian scholars. Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great in 325 CE, ordered the burning of books by Arius. Anyone who held any of his works would be executed.

The most ignominious act aimed at destroying enlightenment was the burning of the Library of Alexandria in several stages, first when Julius Caesar set his fleet on fire which spread to the Library, and then by Aurelian who destroyed part of it when he took Alexandria. Accounts exist about the final destruction of the Library by Emperor Theodosius, the Coptic Pope Theophilus, and the Muslims – though these accounts have been contested.

Printing – civilization

Printing is information and information is the most fundamental necessary condition of civilization. Information can be transmitted and received via sequences, or strings as we say, of binary digits 0s and 1s or bits. Actually, everything including human beings, in principle at least, can be expressed as strings of bits. We all the time send and receive texts, pictures, numbers, voice, music, control signals, Internet signals, and so on in the form of bits. Our civilization is based on the exchange of information in the form of binary digits.

In order to quantify information in an objective way one has to strip it of its subjective nature and focus on its carriers, the bits. This is done when information is reduced to the probability of occurrence of those carriers regardless of meaning to people. One can then proceed with the analysis and design of information channels and their limits or capacity. Limits on information generation and capacity are in some sense also limits to civilization.

In terms of geological time the appearance of civilization is a very recent event. The human brain created civilization thanks primarily to the evolutionary development of language which seems to have appeared 70,000 to 100,000 years ago[3] and writing which appeared at about 3500 to 3000 BCE in Mesopotamia and at 500 BCE in Mesoamerica.[4]

The invention of printing in the 1450s CE gave civilization a tremendous leap. Then, in the twentieth century, information technologies set the stage for another great leap thanks to the vacuum tube, the transistor, the integrated circuit, microprocessors and computers together with related advances in mathematics and physics.

In the past the written or printed word changed the world, sometimes with the help of armies of such great nations as Persia, Greece, Rome, etc. After the invention of printing large numbers of people had suddenly access to information that previously was intended for the privileged. This change was not without turbulence.

In the nineteenth century, industrialists facing urban riots in Europe became advocates of the education of the working classes so that they ‘govern and repress their passions’. At the same time in Europe a high tax was imposed on printed newspaper pages so that the poor wouldn’t have access to them. In the eighteenth century, it was a crime to teach blacks to read in Southern US States. It seems that people couldn’t agree how to handle information.

Some basic elements of information theory

Information creates civilization. But what is information? In what follows some rudiments of information theory will be briefly given.

Consider a random experiment with n outcomes e1, e2,…, en with corresponding probabilities of occurrence p1, p2,…, pn. The information Ii of event ei is defined as Ii = -logpi. Information is concerned with its carriers which are letters of an alphabet or binary digits in a digital system such as a computer, a TV set, or a cellular phone. Information is not concerned with the meaning of a message, its semantics or pragmatics. The latter are quite subjective and thus, not amenable to a rigorous analysis. The expected or mean information is called entropy H = -p1logp1-p2logp2-…-pnlogpn.

It can be demonstrated that entropy or mean information is a measure of disorder in a random situation. If the base of the logarithm is chosen to be 2, entropy equals the average number of Yes-No or binary questions one asks to find which event occurred. For example, if one of two equiprobable events e1, e2 occurred, one asks only one question: ‘Is it e1?’. Indeed, the number of binary questions = 1 = -1/2log2 ½-1/2log1/2 = log22 =  2 bits of information as we say.

Similarly, if we have four equiprobable events we group them into two groups:  e1 and e2 into group A and e3 and e4 into group B. Here we ask two questions: ‘Is it group A?’ and if it’s A we ask ‘Is it e1?’. Once more log24 = 2 bits. In general for n equiprobable events we ask on average log2n binary questions.

One of the fundamental results of information theory states that if a letter of, say, the English alphabet with probability of occurrence pi is to be encoded in a sequence of 0s and 1s, the minimal length of each codeword is equal to the information of this letter, log2pi. If the 26 letters of the English alphabet were equiprobable they would contain log2 26 bits of information = 4.7 bits. But the letters are not equiprobable. So, the actual information of the English alphabet is about[5] H = 3.32 bits/symbol. This means that one could devise a code such as the Morse code for the English alphabet with average code length of 3.32 bits.

With this in mind, Douglas Robertson[6] has derived a rough estimate of the information content of each civilization using a generous H=5 bits/symbol, that is five encoded digits per letter of an ordinary alphabet. This estimate does not assess the quality but the size of the information contained in each civilized age.

  • Pre-Language

Whatever each person had in his/her mind ≈ About 2 Iliads ≈ 2 (5 million bits) = 107 bits

  • Language

Knowledge of each person + knowledge of others in the tribe ≈ 100 x 107  = 109 bits

  • Writing

Information content ≈ Content of the library of Alexandria ≈ 1011 bits

  • Printing

Next enormous leap: information ≈ content of books + journals + newspapers + … (assuming a certain shelf life for each) ≈ 1017 bits

2007: world capacity to store information ≈ 1022 bits

Writing was a great advance that enabled an information leap 100 times greater than its predecessor, language. But the greatest leap was achieved thanks to printing that gave us an information leap one million times greater than its predecessor, writing! Our age is marked by information technology that gave us the ability of transmitting almost any kind of information at the speed of light. This speed is taken for granted today but if one goes back to the nineteenth century this speed was the speed of man, horse, sailboat, pigeon, or railroad.

Looking at the simple analysis above one sees that the greatest leap so far was that of printing.

Printing Museums

So why do we need printing museums? We need them because they preserve the memory of one of the grandest achievements of humanity that tremendously advanced science, technology, education for all, the arts, religion, and independent thinking, in one word civilization.

To be sure we don’t live in an ideal world happily ever after. We face social problems such as poverty, large income distribution inequalities, violence, famine, intolerance, lack of privacy, and disease. Equally important are the environmental problems such as climate change, species extinction, air pollution, overpopulation, and toxic pollution. However, we cannot give up. We’ll continue the struggle. We need more information to resolve these questions. We have the means: science, technology, arts, printing, schools.

Here in Chania we are very fortunate. We have the only printing museum of Greece, the Museum of Typography founded and directed by Yiannis and Eleni Garedakis. The Museum offers a compelling narrative of printing, a technology that changed the world. Its founders must be proud. They have given us a narrative of the human struggle for information, the pride of a job well done, the human struggle for communication. It is a museum and as such it rediscovers the past and it recreates stories of men. Stories without which we wouldn’t be what we are.

As a scientist and writer, I feel thankful for printing, a simple invention that seems to be trivial and is taken for granted like water or air. I feel thankful because it enabled me to move from my limited world in a village of the Peloponnese to the cosmos – grandiose and sentimental as this may sound. It taught me a few things, verifiable by straightforward observation:

  • That humanity is a mixture of light and darkness: self-interest and altruism, malevolent lies and simple truths, sacrifice and mass murder, love and cruelty, modesty and arrogance, enlightenment and bigotry.
  • That the absence of civility from politics is the rule rather than the exception. One can abundantly observe this by merely following the debates in the Greek Parliament, the US election campaigns, the Euroworking Group meetings and so on.
  • That progress is made in small steps despite all the bad things. Yet, progress cannot be taken for granted; we should always guard it against the forces of darkness.
  • That absolute ideologies and dogmas are catastrophic, because anything absolute goes against nature and life. Absolute freedom destroys the freedom of others, absolute equality is a contradiction in terms and absolute justice is self-effacing.
  • That enlightenment is mainly achieved through science and greatly enriched through art.
  • That the song of life is a song worth singing.




[3] J. J. Bolhuis, I. Tattersall, N. Chomsky, and Robert C. Berwick, “How could language have evolved?” PLoS Biol Vol. 12, No. 8: e1001934. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.

[4] J. J. Mark, “Writing” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 28, 2011.

[5] F. Pratt, “Secret and Urgent,” Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1942.

[6] D. S. Robertson, “The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization, Oxford, Oxford, 1998.

[7] M. Hilbert and P. López, “The world’s technological capacity to store, communicate, and compute information,” Science, Vol. 332, issue 6025, pp. 60-65, Apr. 2011.