This British Library exhibition, ‘Writing – Making your Mark,’ charts the development of the evolution of writing covering 5,000 years.

I read the instructions for how to prepare a quill pen: "Step 1: Take the flight feather of a goose."

Wow! It sounds so primitive, and yet quills were the most common implement from the Middle Ages right up to the early 19th Century. I imagine writing a poem and having to stop my flow to regularly reload my quill with ink!

Thankfully, by the 1930s, the Biro was invented by Laszlo Biro, with its rotating ball depositing an even layer of ink. This of course led to the BIC Cristal pen, a design classic with its hexagonal barrel; to this day, millions are sold around the world every year.

I then have a look at at some chic Mont Blanc fountain pens and remember how attached I became to my Parker fountain pen while studying for my A levels. I’d prefer royal blue to black ink and used to love the way the ink would flow from the elegant nib so long as you didn’t press too hard.

I move to the other side, step into the 20th Century and learn about the writing schemes that the educator Marion Richardson invented. Apparently to perfect the art of writing, natural flowing movements when holding a quill, or even a Mont Blanc, can only be attained with good hand-eye co-ordination and spatial awareness.

I walk by a quote: “Writing is a complex skill that can take several years to learn and develop. This can be a lifelong process.” I smile and think to myself, you’re not kidding!

I approach a long horizontal glass wall cabinet and am stopped in my tracks by a Tibetan Buddhist folding book. Its colours are rich in rust and black with complex designs; the longer I look at it, the more I realise it is the most beautiful book I have ever seen.

Dated from the 19th Century, it is heavily illustrated with Buddhist scripture and produced for sacred ceremonies in monasteries. It is supposed be held horizontally. The pages are densely illustrated with images of Buddha in meditation and other religious imagery. The richness of colour and delicacy of the script is captivating. It feels like it should be read by candlelight. I’d love to hold it in my hands and unfold it like an accordion.

Other early printed texts in the cabinet include a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost and a beautiful Lindisfarne Gospel from 700AD. A large group of Japanese tourists gather around them, interested to have a closer look at our Western treasures. I join them, marvelling at William Caxton’s first edition of The Canterbury Tales, one of the earliest books to be printed in England.

I stop and spend a little time looking at an Imperial manual typewriter, it’s all black and its keys and faded letters look worn. I stand there reminiscing about the poems I wrote in the late 1980s; how the keys would snap along while I was flowing; how I’d rhythmically hammer away at the keys, push the carriage lever speedily then let it go.

We move onto ‘Notetakers’ and I learn that Tiro, Cicero’s slave, invented a shorthand system more than 2,000 years ago; nowadays, Isaac Pitman’s shorthand is the most widely used in English-speaking countries.

At the end of the exhibition, we get a chance to reflect on the huge changes taking place within today’s digital communication as new technologies replace written words with pictures, video and voice recordings. I step into ‘The Future of Writing’ a darkened space, to watch a short video of people of every generation and from all walks of life being interviewed and expressing their thoughts on future possibilities.

Some talk solely about the functionality of digital technologies and how that can make our lives easier (with the use of many newly invented tools like SMART pens and electronic paper we can scroll or fold); some talk about the advances of speech technology, as in the case of Stephen Hawking, and one teenager explains that one day when she’s old and grey, there may be holographic ipads that she won’t even know how to use!

I feel uneasy, as writing is not just a functional process. There are ethical and aesthetic issues to consider. Although I want to believe that writing and technology will develop hand in hand, inspiring and influencing one another, I must admit that I don’t.

Nowadays, choosing an emoji or a video clip to replace the written word is fine but I think we need to be aware that the way we use language is connected to our thought processes, so if we start to limit our literacy and thinking solely in terms of emoticons and emojis creating a type of hybrid writing system, we could potentially lose our ability to think, read and write in more advanced ways, lowering our consciousness. After all, isn’t language and speech the only thing that separates us from other species?

  • Marisa Laycock moved from south west London to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city