Dr. Culpepper shares the story of The Book

Sydney Brummel—Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Sioux Center Public Library

The Sioux Center Public Library remained quiet with few visitors on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 30. With the sky dark and a thunderstorm raining down on the town, most people chose to remain at home. However, a handful of individuals interested in books, history, or both walked into the library’s conference room. There, they attended a brief presentation about the long, complex history of The Book, given by Dordt University’s own history professor, Dr. Scott Culpepper.

The library contacted Culpepper last July about a traveling exhibit, “The Traveling History of The Book,” featuring a collection of artifact replicas that would visit Sioux Center in September. The exhibit belongs to the Iowa Center for The Book, an organization based in Des Moines.

“What the [Iowa Center for The Book] does is research into the distribution of written materials,” Culpepper said. “They advocate for literacy.” 

The organization also puts on programs at college campuses and libraries, as well as sends speakers throughout the state to speak on topics related to literacy.

Prior to COVID-19, this exhibit travelled throughout the state. Though its journey temporarily stopped in lieu of the pandemic, it recently resumed its teaching. Due to Sioux County’s smaller population, the exhibit resided safely in Sioux Center for a time.

Each item in the exhibit serves as an example of writing mediums throughout history. Ranging from an imitation of the Rosetta Stone to miniature 19th-century story books, the collection gives its audience an intriguing glimpse into how far humanity has gone in recording its story.

“This is stuff I get excited about, just in and of itself,” Culpepper said. “In fact, it’s a lot of what we do in the first quarter of CORE 140.”

The library personnel and Culpepper worked together to come up with a presentation that could complement the nature of the traveling exhibit. Eventually they settled on the idea of “The Story of The Book.”

Culpepper led the seminar in a way reminiscent of his teaching style at Dordt. Seamlessly weaving his characteristic jokes into the material, he shared with a smiling audience how historical writing means progressed from limited pictograms, Cuneiform tablets, and Egyptian papyrus scrolls to what we have today—physical books and an entire universe of digital texts. Culpeper especially focused on the three necessities of mankind when working toward recording text: accessibility, durability, and reproducibility.

“People have had to work to overcome obstacles in order to communicate,” Culpepper said. “These are products that we just take for granted. They frame our lives every day and going back and exploring the origin of them is fascinating.”

After the presentation, those interested saw the actual exhibit toward the entrance of the library in a glass display case. The audience observed material and artifacts, as the history professor spent time both during and after the presentation answering their questions. Of course, Culpepper reflected, it makes sense that people would be so interested in and care about this particular part of history.

“Literacy and education are so important,” Culpepper said. “It’s easy to forget what the world was like when we didn’t have this availability of education and the kind of resources that we can marshal. It’s so easy to lose those things when you forget where they came from and what a struggle it was to get where we are.”

The exhibit, paired with Culpepper’s presentation, further emphasized that every form of communication has had its advantages and disadvantages, continuing to develop into different forms over time. While digital media today certainly has massive ease of use and accessibility, one cannot dismiss the necessity of each step it took to get there–whether in the form of an ancient clay tablet or a book bound in wood.

Culpepper encourages Dordt students and community members to visit the traveling exhibit before it moves to its next temporary home on Oct. 10.

“No matter what field you’re in, be it something in the humanities, in engineering, the sciences, or nursing,” Culpepper said. “There’s something that connects with your vocation.”

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