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Agriculture at the Library of Congress

While visiting the Library of Congress I saw the Gutenberg Bible, which was printed in Germany in the mid-1450s. As I stood looking at this book that has survived for centuries, I didn’t realize how agriculture helped make that volume possible. 

The Gutenberg Bible was the first book in western Europe printed with movable metal type. This made it possible to duplicate books so that anyone who could read would be able to access a copy. 

Most of the 180 copies were printed on paper; 35 were copied on vellum, which is parchment made from calf skin.  Only three perfect copies of the Gutenberg Bible written on vellum are left, and one is housed in the Library of Congress. Originally one volume, it was rebound into three volumes while housed in the Benedictine Order. The new binding was made of pigskin.

Reading how the Bible was written on calf skin made me curious to learn more, so I started reading about the history of its uses.  There are mentions of writing on vellum dating back to the fifth century BC.  In the second century BC, animal skin vellum was an alternative to using papyrus, which was being overharvested and harder to find. 

Parchment is any animal skin that is prepared for writing or printing. It can be made from calf, goat, sheep, squirrel, or rabbit.  Vellum is exclusively made using calf skin. Many important documents were written on parchment because it was stronger and more durable. The Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence were all written on parchment

Parchment is expensive, so as cheaper options like paper became available, its use for books and other art slowed down.  However, like many things, parchment is experiencing a revival and many artists are learning how to handmake skins.

If you are ever in Washington, D.C., take the time to visit the Library of Congress. It houses more than 162 million items including books, sound recordings, song lyrics, and photos. It originated in 1800 as a home for the books that members of Congress might need. The original building was burned by the British is 1814. Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his collection of books to start a new Library, which opened in 1897.  Many of Jefferson’s original books are still housed there.  The building has been restored and is home to works of art by many artists of the time.

While you’re there, visit the Gutenberg Bible. It’s amazing to see a book that has lasted since 1455. 

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