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We have all benefited from old printers' loss

By Leek Post and Times  |  Posted: January 09, 2014

By Geoff Browne

Printing taking place at the Post & Times in around 1970.

Printing taking place at the Post & Times in around 1970.

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I HAVE just been skimming through a hundred-year old account of the Reade family, who lived at Blackwood Hill, Endon, and who seem to have come connection with Staffordshire's literary giant Samuel Johnson.

But I wasn't holding its 280-odd pages in my hands: I discovered it online.

This is the paradox of the computer – it put thousands of old-style printers out of work and yet there is more printed material available today than there has ever been.

The computer destroyed one type of job but thanks to cheap technology attached to our home PCs, it has made all of us printers and created new possibilities for historians and other writers.

The computer has put what used to be a dozen separate craft printing jobs into a small box that most people can afford to have on their desk or kitchen table.

And what might have taken hours to assemble in metal type can now be done in a couple of minutes by the workings of millions of transistors miniaturised out of sight.

We have all benefited by the old printers' loss.

There are now many shelves of books devoted to the history of Leek and district and they can be produced at affordable prices.

Even the smallest of these local volumes would have been hugely expensive if the words had been set in the metal type of the old technology.

Most would never have seen the light of day because of the cost of typesetting and the time it would all have taken.

For example when the first history of the North Staffordshire Railway was produced in the early 1950s by a small printing company, it retailed for the equivalent of today's £60.

This volume has become a rare collector's item but you couldn't say it has increased in value like some antiques.

If you can find a decent copy it still won't cost you more than £60.

A similar book produced today by computer methods would probably sell for £20 or so and probably have more and better illustrations.

The author of the Blackwood Hill volume was wealthy enough to be able to by-pass the economics of Caxton's method; his volume was printed and published privately at his own expense. As I write, I am looking at the latest example of the computer's role in the spread of knowledge.

This is Paul Anderton's history of the early textile industry, Leek's Workers in Silk, published in Leek and District Historical Society's Chronicles series. This is a high quality production and is astonishing value at £8.

The computer has done more than make its printing an economic proposition. The new technology makes it possible to reproduce old documents with a clarity that Caxton's method could not achieve.

But the new technology of course does not stop at better quality, more affordable, small quantity books.

Paper and ink are no longer essential parts of the equation. The arrival of Kindle and other readers means that we can download hundreds of volumes that require no shelf space at all, and many of our local authors are publishing their books in this new electronic version as well as on paper.

So anyone can be a writer today, but an old problem remains.

You still have to have something write about.

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