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Collaborative Research Project Highlights Earliest Printed Books

What is the earliest book printed from cast-metal moveable type? Most Westerners think the earliest printed book is the 42-line Gutenberg Bible. If you are from East Asia, though, you think of Jikji. Johannes Gutenberg’s method of printing books from movable cast-metal type made a pervasive impression on Western Europe when first introduced about 1455. The impact of European East Asian printing from movable cast-metal type that preceded Gutenberg’s invention by over 70 years is less well understood.

From Jikji to Gutenberg is a collaborative research project involving over 30 scholars living in 13 different time zones who intend to investigate the technological evidence related from the invention of book printing. This interdisciplinary team is made up of historians, material specialists, conservators and scientists who will apply nondestructive multispectral and XRF imaging at Stanford University’s state-of-the-art Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource to study what appears to be independent developments that lead to thriving print cultures in Eastern Asia to Western Europe.

A nine-minute video called From Jikji to Gutenberg was created as an overview of the project featuring head of the Marriott Library preservation department, Randy Silverman. An introduction and Korean subtitles were added by the Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles (KCCLA), and aired on their YouTube channel as part of KCCLA’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. After the premiere, Yonhap News, Korea’s largest news agency, covered the project in a news article. After Yonhap wrote about it, the story was picked up by two other Korean news organizations.

Both the 42-line Gutenberg Bible and Jikji were inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register in 2001 to mutually recognize their “outstanding universal value.” Yet Jikji, printed years before the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, remains almost unknown in the West, and there is evidence the Korean’s were printing from movable metal type as early as 1239. The only surviving copy of Jikji is held by the BnF in Paris and has not been seen in public since 1973.

The goal of From Jikji to Gutenberg is to produce a catalog of scholarly essays to be published by The Legacy Press (Ann Arbor, MI) to accompany an international exhibit held simultaneously in 44 research libraries, each a major cultural destination in its own right. This cooperative transnational exhibit will commemorate the 650th anniversary of the printing of Jikji in July 2027. The core interpretive element of each library’s exhibit will be a 42-line Gutenberg Bible displayed for the first time together with its complement: an earlier Korean book printed from cast-metal type. In the Chinese tradition of the Four Great Inventions (the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing), each exhibit will direct international attention toward the Bibliothèque nationale de France which we hope will showcase their beautiful copy of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible with the venerable Jikji displayed for the first time since 1973.

The Library of Congress has agreed to participate in these synchronized exhibits to help acknowledge Korea’s monumental gift to civilization. The project will celebrate the interrelated origins of printing East and West by sharing with the public the range of rare cultural artifacts that epitomize the historic foundations of global book printing, including works from East Asia.

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