DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, December 16, 2013

Papering the World @The National Archives

After writing six books about books and books culture, Nicholas Basbanes isn't surprised that he chose the history of paper as the subject for his latest offering. "I'm concerned about books and it just seemed eventually I would get concerned about the method of transmission," said Basbanes.

The author appeared recently at the National Archives to discuss On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History. The Archives was extremely apt for his talk since it serves as a repository for more than 80 billion pieces of paper.

The history of paper begins in ancient China. In fact, the Chinese claim that paper is one of the country's four greatest inventions, the others being printing, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass.

"Paper began as an idea, There was nothing inevitable about it. But today, there more than 20,000 uses for paper," Basbanes said.

The book traces those uses from China to Japan to the Arab world to Europe and America. "It follows a domino effect. We can see it traveling from one country to another," Brisbanes said.

Paper, coupled with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1450, created an information explosion that continues to this day. "It was affordable and it was available," Basbanes said, noting that parchment from animal skin was used for a writing surface prior to the introduction of paper. "It took 260 sheep to make 1 Gutenberg Bible," he noted.

In the early 19th Century rags were essential to papermaking. "I say it is the first industrial material that required recycled material," Basbanes explained.

As part of his research for his book, Basbanes traveled to China and Japan, where "many of the old ways predominate".  But he also visited modern plants that take in $1.6 billion annually making more than 1,000 different paper products ranging from toilet paper to tea bags to postal stamps. "You can see trees come in one end and paper come out the other," he said.

In some ways, paper produced the American Revolution, Brisbanes contends. First, there was the colonists resistance to the Stamp Act of 1765, where Britain placed a tax on every piece of paper used in their American colonies. "And people had come to rely on paper in their daily lives," he said. In addition, of course, there is no America without its Declaration of Independence. "Our country started with a piece of paper," Brisabnes said.

Although the printed word and art most often come to mind when people consider paper, there are other essential uses such as currency. Brisbanes showed a picture of a one hundred thousand trillion dollar bill from Zimbabwe he had purchased for 50 cents. "Somethings truly aren't worth the paper they are printed on," he joked. "It's really the printed material that makes paper valuable. And that gets to the power of a piece of paper to move you." For example, the first 10-cent Action Comic introducing Superman was sold for $2.1 million, while a copy of the Bay Psalm Book (only an estimated 14 still in existence) brought in $14 million. "So the question is what is a piece of paper worth?," Brisbanes noted. "Could the real talent of Leonardo da Vinci or Beethoven have been fully realized without paper?"

Brisbanes ended his talk by discussing a graphic picture of a lone, dust-and -debris-covered man sitting after the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 surrounded by a geyser of paper. "Really, paper was one of the few things to survive. They talk about a paperless society, but I think paper is going to be around for a long time. Paper means memory and it means who we are. We are what our papers say we are," Brisbanes said.

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