“The Book and the Silk Roads” is a 2-year Mellon Foundation-funded project of the University of Toronto Libraries with the Old Books, New Science Lab. We seek to build and support an international network of humanities scholars, curators, conservators, and scientists to explore significant developments in book technologies, focusing on occasions of cultural interchange and innovation in the premodern world.

Why ‘Silk Roads’?

Coined by nineteenth-century German historians, the “Silk Roads” (Seidenstrassen) were a kind of linguistic short-hand to designate the network of trade routes that linked the Roman Empire to East Asia from antiquity through the early modern era, moving through various spheres of influence – Byzantine, Persian, Mughal, and so on. The term has complex valences into the present day, where the “Silk Roads” have been repurposed in the context of global trade and information sharing (Chin 2013).

Our project seeks to situate the book – in its material reality, as a product of the craft practices that shaped it – within this network of interconnected sites, at once localized in specific places and yet also continuously in transit. Beyond this, the “silk” that gives these idealized “roads” their name is central to our project, which is attentive to the string and cloth that binds the parts of books together, illuminating the relationship of book technologies to the history of textiles.

What is a Book?

Our project uses the word “book” to describe all the text and image bearing objects encompassed by our project.

The word “book” is sometimes used to mean modern printed books exclusively. But it has a much richer history than this. It has long been used quite loosely, to describe texts contained by as well as objects containing texts. 

Old English boc, "book", and bec, "beech", are probably cognate, suggesting an intimate connection between texts and the bark and wood used for early writing. This is a global connection. Sanskrit bhūrjá- (masculine) refers to the birch tree, and (feminine) means birch bark used for writing. Many other languages have words for book that derive from words describing writing substrates. “Pothi”, for example, is from Sanskrit पुस्तिका (pustikā, "book"), which is probably related to Persian پوست‎ (pust, “skin, hide”).     

And in English language modern scholarship, the word "book" is used by scholars to refer to single leaves, scrolls, and tablets found in the Mogao caves; to Dead Sea Scrolls; to the Genji monogatari emaki

“Book”, that is, complicates its associations with modernity or printing or historically European formats for texts. It lets us open up the story of human communication to different technologies and global cultures.