We tend to look at change as a feature of modern life, but I was reminded last week that publishing has always been a magnet for new technology. I had the opportunity to visit the Morgan Library, a must-see for all who love books. Exhibits included papers belonging to Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and one of three Gutenberg bibles owned by the Morgan. There was also a little room full of cylinder seals. According to the descriptive tags, they were “among the earliest known objects to use pictorial symbols to communicate ideas.” These finely carved little cylinders were once rolled over clay to officially seal containers and doors, and later to authenticate record documents. They came into use in western Asia around 3500 BC and were common for thousands of years, until 330 BC. That year, Alexander the Great defeated the last Persian king and moved his new territory’s center of government to Greece, where official records were kept on parchment or papyrus.
The description ended there, but it occurred to me that the switch might have had wide-reaching effects on ancient western Asia. Were the streets suddenly filled with newly unemployed clay vendors? Did donkey cart owners have to scramble for work, now that there were no more heavy official tablets to transport? What did the highly skilled seal-carvers find to carve? Did citizens worry that parchment was too impermanent a medium for important public records? The impact of the shift from clay to parchment, a step vital to the development of the publishing industry as we know it, was likely unsettling at the time.
I think we’ve come to a similar moment right now. Publishing processes have already changed dramatically in the last 25 years. We keep our content current year-round instead of running cumbersome annual updates. We publish instantly instead of waiting weeks for our words to see the light of day. We sort or recut data to meet our clients’ needs almost at the drop of a hat. New software and devices appear every day, each with the potential to permanently change the way we work. That’s why I’m delighted to be attending the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference this week in New York City. It’s an exciting time to be in publishing. As the conference name indicates, our industry is evolving every day, and the opportunity to get a glimpse of the next big change is one I would not miss.