The Left-over “i”

The colophon – that last page at the end of a manuscript or book – has served so many purposes such as giving the title of the work, identifying the scribe or printer, naming the place and date of completion or imprint, thanking and praising the patron, bragging, blaming, apologizing, entreating, praying and much more that its origin could be traced back to almost any last mark in the earliest human records.

This device so infrequently used in books today, why should we bother ourselves with it?  Fine enough for J. F. Kennard and A.W. Pollard, familiar to historians of the book, to have written small tomes about it in 1901 and 1905.  Fine enough that it has appeared at the end of “fine books” from publishers like David Godine and the end of most of O’Reilly & Associates’ widely used IT books.

But that it shows up on websites, too? Just enter “colophons on websites” in your favorite search engine, and you will find for example:

Each of the website colophons above has its functional doppelganger among the early printers’ colophons, but more on that in a future post.

No doubt the colophon found its way into websites before 2008, but perhaps its presence has something to do with the writings of a Scot named Bill Hill (aptly so, if you recall the July 29th entry below).  In 2008, he waxed enthusiastically about the colophon because of its historic association with type fonts:

“Why not introduce the venerable concept of the Colophon to the Web? Could it be used to drive a new business model for fonts which would benefit the font industry, web developers and designers – and the people who visit their sites?”  He even suggested making the colophon a compulsory standard.

From today’s websites back to Dietrich, the first Abbot of Saint Evroul, who oversaw the scribes in the scriptorium there, the colophon courses like a meme or common protocol.  It tugs at the self-reflective and communal in us.  It looks backward over the work it culminates (a word etymologically related to it) and looks forward to the work’s future readers.  More so in Dietrich’s time, it often looked backward over the life’s work of the scribe and forward to his future reward.

In case the image above (a page from Kennard’s book, “Some Early Printers and Their Colophons,” describing Dietrich’s exhortation to his scribes) is not legible, here is the relevant bit:

“Once upon a time there was a wicked monk.  At his death the devil claimed his soul.  He thought he had a sure thing.  Now, it happened that just before his death the monk had completed the copying of a great fario volume.  This book the angels brought to judgment-seat of God, and for each letter written in the book one sin was forgiven.  When the recording angel had added up the two sides of the account, behold, there was one little ” i” left over, and the monk’s soul was saved.”

That little “i” left over – the colophon – will be a useful point from which to explore the evolution of the book and how its predecessors and its successors were and will be read.

One thought on “The Left-over “i”

  1. Simon Cousins 2012/08/03 / 21:50

    As author of one of the website colophons listed, I’m honoured to have our site cited as an example.

    I admit to being ignorant of Mr. Hill’s exhortation for website colophons. What motivated our team was a sense of open-source completeness. We built something we were proud of and felt our accomplishment more validated by sharing an insight into the tools used in its construction. Like Mr. Hill though, we would be delighted to see a colophon for every website and publication. It seems to me that providing the colophon (and keeping it fresh, in the fluid medium of a website) is the publisher’s side of the compact it has with its readers.

    Sharing is a risky marketing activity, but one which works in probably 50% of cases. It seems to be working for Illuminant.


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