On Friday November 6, on my way to a meeting, I stopped by the British Library. It had been quite a long time since I had been there.

You need a special permit to use their volumes, but they have a very active schedule of events and presentations, and a wonderful museum.

Amongst the “treasures” they have, there are manuscripts from Mozart (‘Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke’), Beethoven, Magna Carta, John Lennon, Percy Bysshe Shelley (‘The Mask of Anarchy’), and many other historically relevant documents, like the first printed music in western musical notation using Gutemberg’s movable type (Southern Germany c.1473), a Gradual (book of chants for the Mass).

Having worked (many years ago) at a book publishing company, I was particularly interested in some of the earliest books printed.

Johan Gutemberg’s Bible is commonly considered the first book ever printed (he’s another example of the fact that “first to market” is an advantage, but not the definitive one: his company went bankrupt, like that of many other pioneers). But this is not correct. There are examples that predate Gutemberg’s by centuries in China and Japan. For example ‘The Diamond Sutra’ (China, May 11, 868) is considered to be the earliest dated printed book.

It is also quite remarkable that this first printed book in history was also “copyleft”: it had a note saying “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his parents on the 15th day of the 4th month of the 9th year of Xiantong”.

But even that book was predated by the oldest surviving examples of printed text in Japan: ‘The Million Charms of Empress Shotoku’ was printed in Nara, Japan, between 761-70. A million copies of the Hyakumantō dhāranī were printed and distributed after the suppression of the Emi rebellion in 764!