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Exhibitions of the German Museum of Books and Writing

Signs - Books - Networks: From Cuneiform to Binary Code // Permanent exhibition at the German Museum of Books and Writing // German National Library in Leipzig

Tally sticks, anatomy textbooks, neon signs, disguised publications, gravestones, novels or love letters: for more than 5,000 years now people have been recording their knowledge about the world, their messages and impressions using written characters. Before writing was invented, people passed information from generation to generation by word of mouth, whereas writing, book printing and computers then allowed knowledge to be stored in a lasting form. The permanent exhibition of the German Museum of Books and Writing provides a brief history of human media based on the three media innovations.

The permanent exhibition has been designed as a "world of experience" to encourage exploration of earlier forms of communication, memory and writing systems, "old" book forms, recording methods and medieval book art which re-examine the historical achievement of Johannes Gutenberg, to open up "worlds of reading", to report on censorship in its different forms and to present masterpieces of modern book art. The intention is for visitors to the exhibition to actively explore the A to Z of 19th century industrialisation milestones and the rapid development of media from the start of the 20th century right up to the present day when the book has relinquished its role as the primary medium and now has to compete with radio, television and digital media.

The permanent exhibition received the "Antiquaria-Preis for Buchkultur" on 24 January 2013. In his eulogy, Hannes Hintermeier, editor of the FAZ features section, emphasised how the exhibition had succeeded in addressing a very broad topic in an academically and aesthetically faithful manner yet without losing sight of the wider audience. The jury justified its decision thus: "The judiciously chosen route from cuneiform through to digital technologies appeals to specialists and non-specialists alike and triggers an enthusiastic response."

Video on permanent exhibition
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Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10:00–18:00, Thursday 10:00–20:00, public holidays 10:00–18:00
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Permanent exhibition topics

In the fourth millennium AD, social and economic changes in Egypt and the Near East provided the decisive impetus for the development of writing, the most significant milestone of which is alphabet-based writing.

The history of writing is told on the basis of archaeological relics. In his interactive media artwork "abc-Matrix", Boris Petrovsky provides a contrast by examining how meaning can be extracted from the slow decoding of signs.

Writing has always been characterised by the different motivations people have for recording and saving information: secret messages, tattoos or petroglyphs, recorded for posterity or for the moment – it is the cultural environment and the writers' intentions which determine the method of writing.

Yet writing is not only the product of a recording process, it also includes stylised signs and visual signals. For centuries script designers have endeavoured to achieve artistic balance in the characters, combining clear legibility with aesthetic perfection.

Erweiterungsbau der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek in Leipzig (Foto: Klaus D. Sonntag)Erweiterungsbau der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek in Leipzig (Foto: Klaus D. Sonntag)

The medium which has transported written human testimony more than any other is the book. It was developed in the form which is still commonly used today in the first century AD. The zenith of the book's significance for culture was the medieval period of manuscripts. Monasteries were the main centres of knowledge and book art at that time. Then, in the twelfth century, they were joined by universities, royal courts and civic administrations. The possession of, and knowledge about, books remained, however, largely the preserve of an elite – the production of manuscripts was the full extent of media communication at the time.

It was not until book printing with movable characters came along that the book became the primary medium. The complex printing technique of Johannes Gutenberg was the most significant innovation of the early modern period and marked a decisive turning point in history. A new era of media history dawned, books became goods for an anonymous market, stimulating the European communication process. The mass production of identical products required new distribution networks. During the Reformation, book printing took over as the primary means of reporting and forming public opinion. Book printing was also the most important catalyst for scientific exploration of the world and the democratisation of education.

Reading was soon no longer the exclusive preserve of the educated, and its purpose was no longer restricted to religious edification or practical application, rather it developed, thanks to fictional literature, into a social pastime which reached new groups of readers and gave rise to an unprecedented demand for reading matter. In the 18th century attitudes changed towards reading and, even at the time, contemporaries referred to the new appetite for it as "voracious" or "excessive". Reading was now a firmly established activity in public and private spaces – in reading societies, lending libraries, village inns or in people's homes. From Goethe's "Werther" to now long-forgotten tales of robbers and knights published in worn and poorly printed booklets: reading matter of all kinds was now available.

However the mass production of printed matter and its role in society and religion soon gave rise to calls for controls. Censorship, aimed at curbing free speech and shaping the minds of the population, reached a new dimension. The Reformation was its main catalyst.

The censorship lists of the Catholic Church – the Index librorum prohibitorum issued from 1559 to 1967 – represent the most blatant attempt to exert systematic control over the book market. Authors and publishers tried to circumvent the censors by issuing disguised publications and underground literature.

The great demand for printed matter gave rise to the industrialisation of book production in the first third of the 19th century. Manual work was replaced by machine production at the start of the 20th century with the ultimate aim of achieving full automation. The resulting increase in production figures and the ability to reach new groups of readers coincided with the introduction of compulsory schooling. New types of books and publications had to be invented in order to satisfy readers' thirst for knowledge and entertainment; these publications were cheap and featured copious illustrations.

As a counter-response to the industrialised mass production of books, a movement devoted to celebrating book art emerged at the end of the 19th century which regarded the book as an object of art and craftsmanship. The English book art movement, Bauhaus typography and artist books laid the foundations for the modern understanding of book design.

The 20th century was the century of mass media: newspapers, radio, television and finally the Internet came to mark the media communication of modern societies. More than ever before, books were now having to compete with other media as means of distributing and storing information. The "Age of Extremes" (Eric Hobsbawm) is characterised by acceleration, mechanisation and networking. The start of the 21st century is marked by a booming book market and a wave of digitisation and virtualisation affecting all media.

The entry of books into the electronic world has given rise to the creation of virtual libraries: multimedia and networked information and knowledge can be accessed everywhere via the universal medium of the Internet. The "virtual library" is a universal platform which integrates all forms of communication and reception and represents a further development of writing and books as two innovations in human history.

And tomorrow? Statements taken from future research, literature and science fiction are highlighted at the end of the exhibition in stylishly designed showcases displaying a tongue-in-cheek "Cultural history of the future".

Last update: 4.3.2019

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