Turning the pages at York Minster

A RECENT headline asked "Have books turned their last page?" It was in response to record sales of electronic versions of the written word.

The death of the hardcover and paperback is regularly reported and seems less exaggerated when it coincides with the passing of Borders, the bookshop chain whose collapse was in large part due to competition from the internet. Virtual libraries are beginning to replace bookshelves and on one day at Amazon.com, e-books outsold the physical version.

York has felt the effects of previous revolutions involving words and how they're read. Last time around the city was at the forefront of change – which makes the closure of the local branch of Borders seem particularly ill-timed. The prominent store stands empty as the city prepares to celebrate 500 years of printing and paper-made books and how they have shaped the nation's story.

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Close to the Minster, a Dutchman, Frederick Freez, was the first to set up here in 1479. He went on to become a freeman of the city but this was a dangerous game for a Protestant to be in. One of his sons was executed on the Knavesmire. February 18, 1510, was a bad day for York's scribes. From a printing press in Stonegate (then Steengate), another immigrant, this time a man from Antwerp called Hugo Goes, produced the earliest York book that survives today. The scribes, quills in hand, were being presented with a technological challenge as profound as that facing today's High Street retailers from online rivals.

Known to scholars as the Pica siue directorium sacerdotum. ad usum Eborscen. usually shortened to the Pica, the book found a ready market among the clergy because it offered an extensive ecclesiastical calendar – 234 pages of Latin text informing them when services should be held in line with the changing dates of Easter. It was the first recorded book printed north of Oxford. Two copies survive, one of them in York Minster Library. It's about the size of a modern paperback and is dwarfed by many of the other ancient tomes in the collection.

In this case size is misleading. The compact Pica (Latin for magpie and given the name because of the black type on the white cloth-based paper) helped to establish York as a major publishing centre. It delivered to the city the benefits associated with being a pioneer of the printed word – and also its dangers.

Words spread ideas which might threaten the established order. After the Tudor period provincial printing was censored and breaches were a penal offence. Wardens of the Worshipful Company of Stationers were empowered to search for prohibited and unlicensed books outside London. In 1642, in the build-up to the Civil War, Charles I based the King's Printer in York. In the quadrangle of St William's College, the Royal Press was kept busy producing the Royal responses to the declarations of Parliament.

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The censors vanished in the chaos of the war, opening the door for incendiary radical sheets to flourish. The lid was pushed firmly back in place on these primitive newspapers when hostilities ceased. Some 50 years later, John White worked a press in Coffee Yard, off Stonegate. When William of Orange landed with an army in Devon at the invitation of Protestants opposed to Catholic James II, White risked everything. He printed William's manifesto, but seemed to have backed a loser. White was imprisoned in Hull, awaiting torture and execution, when word came that James had fled to France. King William and Queen Mary promptly expressed their gratitude to White by making him "Their Majesties' Printer for the City of York and the five Northern Counties". White's widow, Grace, launched the city's first newspaper, the York Mercury.

John White also had an apprentice called John Jackson. In 1703 he opened a print shop in adjoining Grape Lane where his son published the York Gazetteer. It carried political articles from a young vicar in North Yorkshire whose pen had a way of stirring things up. One Tory supporter was so incensed he attacked Jackson and threatened the writer.

In 1760 this controversial vicar from Coxwold, at his own expense, published and printed in York the first two slim volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Laurence Sterne offered his subsequent sections to the London publisher who initially had rejected the work. In a letter to him Sterne wrote: "The book shall be printed here and the impression sent up to you for as I live in York, and shall correct every proof myself, it shall go perfect into the world, and be printed in so creditable a way as to paper, type, &c., as to do no dishonour to you……"

Tristram Shandy is often regarded as the first modern novel. In the words of JB Priestley: "Modern literature begins with Sterne". Which means that the printing of modern literature began in York, according to Michael Sessions.

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He is the fourth generation of his family to print here in the same oak-beamed premises in Grape Lane. He uses computer technology for today's customers but in another part of Jackson House is a bibliographic workshop which pays tribute to his predecessors. Here are iron hand presses, wooden drawers containing the metal version of typefaces such as 8pt Gloucester, 10pt Old Style Bold, 24pt Samson Script and 36pt Garamond. Specific terms in the printers' working lexicon – "out of sorts", "dab hand", "ps and qs" – have entered our everyday language.

Michael Sessions has been largely responsible for the new York exhibition whose sub-title suggests the story of print will extend from 1510 to 2510. He scoffs at those who doubt his confidence that the printed word will be around for at least the next 500 years. "For all the impact of computers, more paper is being used now than ever before," he points out. "In one form or another, printing will remain a fundamental of life. Caxton's revolution had a massive impact on society and what he introduced continues to develop. Electronic technology is not making print redundant but taking it to exciting new levels."

In the Minster Library they also know about the perils of the printer's art. They have a copy of the Wicked Bible, so-called because in 1631 a compositor typesetting the Ten Commandments forgot, by accident or mischief, to add a word of three letters.

The seventh Commandment reads: "Thou shalt commit adultery".

The exhibition is in Grays Court, Chapter House Street (near the Minster) February 14-18 , 11am-4pm. It includes demonstrations of a historic printing press. [email protected] or call 01904 635967