A Utah expert is studying the world’s oldest movable-type book — and it’s not the Gutenberg Bible

A University of Utah researcher is leading a team to study the 14th century Korean book called Jikji.

(University of Utah) Scans of pages of the Gutenberg Bible, top, and Jikji, a Korean Buddhist book that was printed decades before Gutenberg's work. A University of Utah researcher is among those leading a study of the Korean book, believed to be the oldest surviving book printed with movable metal type.

Ask most people what the oldest book made with movable metal type is, and they likely will say the Gutenberg Bible, printed around 1455 in Mainz, Germany.

That isn’t the case, and a University of Utah librarian is part of a research project to give proper due to what scholars say is the first such book, known as Jikji.

“People should learn the bigger picture,” said Randy Silverman, who’s head of preservation at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library, and one of two principal investigators on the collaborative project “From Jikji to Gutenberg.”

Jikji is a Korean Buddhist book — the title translates to “pointing at it directly” — that was printed in 1377. It tells “a compression of the history of the Buddhists,” Silverman said. “It tells how the Buddhists attained enlightenment.”

The project — which involves 40 scholars, working in 14 different time zones worldwide — aims to bring Jikji’s existence to the forefront of printing history around the globe.

In a video explaining the endeavor, Silverman says they are “changing perspectives on the history of printing.”

To give context to the project’s mission, Silverman tells a story about a neighbor’s child on his street, who was drawing a sidewalk-chalk picture of the planet, marked with important cultural milestones. Gutenberg was on there, but Jikji was not.

It’s Silverman’s hope, he said, that the next time that child draws a globe, Jikji will be included among the great milestones.

Silverman said he learned about Jikji a few years ago, when he was invited by UNESCO to give talks in South Korea, in Seoul and Cheongju, about 85 miles south — a place Silverman had not heard of before.

Cheongju is home to the Cheongju Early Printing Museum, which opened in 1992 next to the site of the original temple (Heungdeok) where Jikji was first printed. The museum was designed, Silverman said, to answer the question “How will you take care of Jikji?”

Silverman said he left Cheongju with “an obligation to come back to America and talk about it, because it just seemed like I got cheated. People ought to know that this is the story.”

There’s a story behind why Jikji isn’t as recognized as the Gutenberg Bible. Much of it involves the lack of accessibility of the one original copy of Jikji.

The story goes that the book was taken from Korea by a French diplomat, Victor Collin de Plancy, in the early 1900s, was bought by a collector in 1911, and was donated in 1950 to the Bibliothèque de national Française — the National Library of France. The library hasn’t displayed its copy of Jikji since the early 1970s.

The French and South Korean governments have contested the proper place for the book for years. In 1989, French President François Mitterand offered to send Jikji to Korea, if the Koreans agreed to import French high-speed rail technology; the deal reportedly broke down when the library’s staff objected. Last November, a French cultural minister said her government would consider lending Jikji to South Korea — on the condition that the Korean government not attempt to seize the book and keep it there forever.

Silverman is adamant that he wants both France and South Korea involved in the project he’s leading — but he also noted, “there isn’t a Western intellectual position that doesn’t think there’s a superiority.”

What Silverman said he and the other scholars are most particularly interested in are the printing methods used to create Jikji — notably, metal type.

“The curious thing for me [is] it’s printed the next year as a woodblock printed book,” Silverman said. “Woodblocks and type are used for different purposes, and making metal type is really complicated.”

The book was printed using Chinese characters that are quite intricate. (The precursor of today’s Korean alphabet wasn’t created until about 75 years later.) Woodblock type is easier to duplicate, he said, much like a modern-day photocopier, because the user can reference it and use it again and again.

Over the next five years, the collaborative project will hold a scholarly symposium at the Library of Congress, and publish a 400-page catalog that will delve into type casting, ink, paper and bookbinding, along with patterns of book distribution in Asia. The hope is that in 2027 — the 650th anniversary of Jikji’s printing — the project will bring an international exhibit to nine research libraries in the United States, and 34 more in 14 other countries.

Part of the project is to compare Jikji and Gutenberg, to see how the Korean and European printers of the 14th and 15th centuries differed in binding, ink, and other aspects of printing.

“The cultural advance of humanity is tied up in this investigation,” Silverman explains. “We want to save ideas as a species because we love the idea of advancement. We want to make it better for the next generation.”