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So, a few decades after a nuclear holocaust, the people of New Jerusalem out near the great salt lake open up a school to teach people. Since the war, however, technology is gone back to the dark ages, including the ability to mass produce books. My question is, can a school function without mass produced books?

The school has about 500 students

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    $\begingroup$ Middle ages had universities without ability to mass produce books. And printing press, once we know it, is so easy to replicate that it is hard to believe it will not be rediscovered. $\endgroup$ – Mołot May 30 '18 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ Not even rediscovered, just remembered. Every other person in Israel probably knows the general idea of how they work. (I'm assuming this is set in Israel because you mentioned a "New Jerusalem". $\endgroup$ – Gryphon May 30 '18 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ Reminder to close-voters: The problem cannot be fixed if the OP is not made aware of it. Personally, I don't see how this is too broad. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre May 30 '18 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ What exactly do they teach at that school? Why is this an issue? This is a strange question to ask since schools exist longer than mass-produced books, much, much longer. I'm sure you've heard that the ancient Greek already had schools, some of them were even public. Maybe you know famous teachers like "Plato" or "Aristotle". They lived about 2400 years ago, the printing press was invented 500 years ago. So perhaps you are asking because there is a specific issue? Could you explain the situation a bit better? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 May 30 '18 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH, I'm sorry, I realize that was easy to misinterpret. I was thanking you, and explaining that I missed the reference you had referred to. Sorry about that. $\endgroup$ – Gryphon May 31 '18 at 12:49
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Mass production of books was made possible by Gutenberg's invention.

Before that books had to be hand written one by one, making them extremely valuable items.

Nevertheless there were schools before that time, mostly relying on oral transmission of knowledge and large libraries where the scholars could copy books needed for research.

The very same can happen in your case.

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  • $\begingroup$ Some books were extremely valuable. I would imagine this university's library has, in addition to many ancient books, newer hand written books as well. If they're done on vellum with costly materials (gold leaf, rare pigments), then yeah, valuable. A quickly copied book written on some kind of cheap paper is still a cheap book. Perfect for students to use and pass on to the next crop. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas May 30 '18 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas The value of a book came from the labour needed to copy it. Using low quality paper would be a waste of labour when the book feel apart.Plus, cheap paper didn't really exist, because pre-industrialization everything was labour-intensive. $\endgroup$ – SPavel May 30 '18 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Keep in mind this is a post-apocalyptic world without mass-produced books - I think you're overestimating the availability of cheap student labor. Most people wouldn't even be literate! The learned literate will occupy similar roles to the monk-copyists of yore. Copying a book requires a significant amount of time from a highly skilled person, so it will be valuable. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang May 30 '18 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Historically, many copyers were already illiterate, and copied the shapes rather than letters. You also have cost in ink, tools, food, lodging to consider. Productivity per person is astronomically low compared to the modern world. You win nothing by making the end product worse. $\endgroup$ – SPavel May 30 '18 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang Yes, it is a post-apocalyptic world. That is what the OP specifies: "dark ages" tech, no printing presses, etc. Yet they want some kind of books to help with the education of hundreds of students at a university. I think, perhaps, they will simply use whatever resources they have available! And yes, these folks will be literate. The OP is specifying a "college", not street corner tutors hammering letters and numbers into kids' skulls! Again, only a certain class of books will require the specialist skills of a trained monk. I've hand written books myself, and I'm no monk! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas May 30 '18 at 23:29
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Adding to the answer by @L.Dutch: not only were there colleges and universities before the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, but also was the transmission of knowledge from these times kep up for centuries to come. A lecture is called 'lecture' - derived from the Latin term for reading - because the lecturer would read the only available book or script of the knowledge to the students who were to take notes. For this process you do not require any printing press, but paper should be available. The main problem will be the change of knowledge transmission for students who grew up in 'pre-apocalypse' time when barely any knowledge has to be memorised any more, as it can always be looked up online on any smart phone anytime, anywhere, whereas afterwards knowledge has to be meomrised literally, as they can only 'look things up' in the library within their own mind.

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    $\begingroup$ You can take notes on slate, then start next morning with an oral quiz to ensure the students have learnt yesterday's lesson before erasing the slate, much like pre-C20th schools. $\endgroup$ – Pete Kirkham May 30 '18 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ St Augustine famously observed with astonishment that his mentor, St. Ambrose, would sometimes read books silently to himself. Reading out loud was the norm! $\endgroup$ – workerjoe May 31 '18 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ True enough. We have just forgotten about this, as 'cheap' reading material available is the norm nowadays. $\endgroup$ – Alex2006 Jun 2 '18 at 8:49
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Sure, they can stock places of learning with books the same way they did before there was a printing press: people copying books.

Eg. every student copies a book they have to learn twice, verbatim*: once for their own use and the second one goes into the library. And they are learning while they do it. The start would be slow but it would pick up exponentially afterwards.

*alterations of course are unavoidable but then, even modern text books have errors in them.

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    $\begingroup$ Books can include techniques to minimize corruption. The Koran, notably, remained correctly replicated because it has so many paragraphs and pages that follow patterns of various kinds... old-school CRC checks. There are other old texts where the formatting helped ensure correct replication... visual inspection would catch many errors. $\endgroup$ – SRM May 30 '18 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ But I agree with @L.Dutch that it is pretty hard to justify the loss of printing press technology. $\endgroup$ – SRM May 30 '18 at 13:30
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Depends on if paper is available.

For undergraduate level mathematics at least, it is fairly common a lecturer will produce their own online notes for a course rather than assigning a textbook. This is essentially writing a small book.

If paper is available, your lecturers should be required to produce such books. Then each student, as part of their degree work, is required to make manual copies of several books.

In fact you can pay scribes who are not students. They don't even have to understand what they're copying. Remember the apocalypse was only a few decades ago so literacy is much more common in your world than during the dark ages (for now).

Soon you have a respectable library.

If paper is unavailable then even students 'taking notes' will be impossible. This is an even bigger obstacle than the nonexistence of a printing press and warrants several questions of its own.

Bonus: I don't know how much easier it is to build a paper factory than a printing press. But the university should have its own paper factory and students are required to put in hours to manufacture all the paper they need, or pay extra fees for the labour.

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In addition to all the general answers that have been given about the historical preservation and transmission of knowledge before the mass printing of books, you may want to copy a technique used when books were only somewhat rare: have a group of students share a book, sitting in a circle around it. The students always sit in the same relative positions so each one learns to read best at a somewhat different angle.

I can't find any references to this practice online but I remember reading about it in a book about Jewish schools in poor areas of Europe.

The same era (or a slightly earlier one) also spawned innovative fonts designed to reduce the amount of ink needed for any given letter.

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The knowledge would be shared via oral stories. And, as consensus is developed for the oral tradition of a given story, it will be written down so the story stays consistent going forward.

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    $\begingroup$ Hello and welcome. We usually expect answers to be more elaborate than just a sentence or three. Please include not only "what", but also "why" and "how". And please, find some time to take the tour and browse help center. $\endgroup$ – Mołot May 30 '18 at 13:15
  • $\begingroup$ I concede that my answer is terse, compared to some of the other answers, but it did answer the question of how would knowledge be disseminated if books did not exist. However, How much different is my answer compared to the answer provided by @l.dutch? The responses given on many of these forums are so uninviting. $\endgroup$ – EricG Jun 1 '18 at 12:49
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You have a big problem, without cheaply and widely available books you don't have mass literacy any more, add to the lack of availability the fact that it's not worth learning to read when you're struggling to make a living farming without full mechanisation, and the fact that modern acid pulp paper breaks down within 5-10 years under ideal conditions. Taken together all that means that decades after the fall of civilisation you don't have teachers who work from exclusively books any more, maybe some notes but not huge libraries of textbooks. In short no you can't have schools for modern style book learning without books being readily available, pretty much from birth. You can still have training schools for practical skills though, it's amazing what that used to include before computers, including but not limited to architecture, surgery, and advanced algebra & calculus all taught verbally to be done without more than a temporary sketchpad.

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    $\begingroup$ This is flatly untrue given that we know several historical examples of centers of higher education pre-printing press. And now we would have a printing press concept. $\endgroup$ – SRM May 30 '18 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM Two things my emphasis is on Book Learning being the issue, and your pre-press centres of higher learning still taught practically rather than the modern pure theory with practice to follow approach we use today. $\endgroup$ – Ash May 30 '18 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ Modern paper breaks down in 5-10 years under ideal conditions? Where did that number come from? My bookshelf inside my house is pretty good shelter for books, but I wouldn't call it ideal, and it has several books that were printed around 30 years ago that are still in great shape. They've survived storage in cardboard boxes in non-climate controlled conditions for several months, as well. $\endgroup$ – Josh May 30 '18 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Josh I think the actual number is somewhat faulty, but the concept is sound. Cheap paper literally falls apart within a relatively short span of time. Early F-SF novels, copies of Analog magazine, etc were printed on super cheap paper that will fall to dust as you open the book. If the proposed pockyclypse is set for, say 2020, then the year of the setting is perhaps 2060. Those cheap paper books will most likely have disappeared entirely by that time. Now, there are plenty of old and modern books on good quality rag paper. If well kept (in a library, eg), those books aren't going anywhere! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas May 30 '18 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ Also "modern acid-pulp paper breaks down after 5-10 years". I've got notes from playing D&D which were scribbled on the cheapest of paper, and which are still fine after nearly 40 years. Nearly all my books are more than 5 years all, and most are more than 10 years old. $\endgroup$ – Martin Bonner May 31 '18 at 12:31

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