One of my passions is miniatures. I love how delicate they are, how engineered and practical they can be. I specially love miniature books. So, imagine how thrilled I am for the opportunity to share this passion in this blog.
For almost two decades, I have had the privilege of working with the miniature books from the General Collections at the Library of Congress. In my capacity as Collections Officer, I have been able to propose and implement measures to improve security, preservation, and access of the miniature books for future generations. The success of this initiative was only possible with the help of numerous staff, interns, and volunteers.
During this time, some people have asked me about the purpose of miniature books, their usefulness or lack thereof. Such comments have always intrigued me. Sometimes it felt as they might be under the impression that miniature books seem not useful or interesting at all in their conception.
Generally, regular size books would seem more practical, fit more content and be easier to print and to read. On the other hand, when thinking about miniature books, one often imagines them as items with tiny fonts sometimes requiring magnifying glasses to read the text, with little content, or even an artifact that only collectors or bibliophiles would be interested in.
Personally, I find them tiny works of art, many requiring extraordinary engineering processes to be made, and very practical to carry information that fits into a pocket. In fact, I like to think of miniature books as fulfilling some of the same functions as smart phones in the many centuries before such devices existed. They can be carried anywhere and can inform and entertain at any moment.
The dimension parameters of what constitutes a miniature book, as opposed to a small book, have changed over time in history. Generally, today miniatures are books smaller than 3 inches (or 10 cm) in height and width. But this may also vary from country to country. The picture below is a detail of bookmarks made by the Collections Management Division (CMD) to illustrate the different dimensions and nomenclatures for miniature books.
Miniature books have always had an important place in the history of printing and bookmaking. They existed since the beginning of writing. Some of the earliest miniature format books were cuneiform stone tablets as small as 1 inch x 1 inch (similar to the diameter of a quarter dollar).
In time, they changed the support to paper, becoming very popular during the Middle Ages, especially because of their portability. During this period, most of the miniature books were of religious nature, containing prayers to be said in different times of the day, known as Book of Hours or Psalms. They were carried on a chain, attached to a belt or girdle, written in small letters and many containing elaborated decorations and illuminations. One can only imagine what an extraordinary talent and skill level would be necessary to do this work without the help of modern devices, for example, computers.
After the 15th century, the popularity of the miniature books only grew and started to include versions of classic Greek and Latin texts, as well as miniature versions of the Bible printed in several languages. This not only reflected the Reformation happening in that century, but also the increased desire from lay people for the ability to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, carrying the book with them. In the 17th and 18th centuries more subjects were added to the miniatures in existence, such as almanacs and calendars. Many of them were exquisitely decorated, creating an intersection between utility and beauty. Some owners even had canvas bags made for their miniatures imitating the cover of the volumes, exemplifying how miniature books were seen as valuable possessions as well as fashionable accessories.
The history of miniature book in the Unites States dates from 1690 with the first book printed by Samuel Green, a copy of William Seeker’s “A Wedding Ring fit for the Finger” (3 x 2 inches), which can be found in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division.
In the 18th century, miniature books found new audiences: women and children. Children’s books became more commonplace and thumb Bibles were especially popular. The Golden Age of Miniatures came in the 19th century with the popularization of the mini books thanks to the improved printing and bookmaking techniques. The sizes of the volumes were smaller, between 3 and 4 inches. And since people had more access to travel, sets of miniature travelling books, containing authors of the classic literature and housed inside a custom decorated box were considered a “must” to be taken on long journeys to entertain the traveler. One famous example is the Bibliothèque portative du voyageur, from J.B. Fournier, which included books of literature and history, used by Napoleon Bonaparte on his travels.
In the 20th century and on, several presses and publishers continued to make miniature books, expanding topics to reference books and guides. One prominent example is the library of Queen Mary’s Dollhouse. This extravagant dollhouse was gifted to Queen Mary in 1924 and included over 170 handwritten miniature books from famous authors, many in the author’s own handwriting. Each just 1×1.5 inch in size and in scale with the rest of the dollhouse. This Miniature collection alone is worth a separate blog.
The 20th century also brought the pop-up books in miniature format. And I need to say: these are my most favorite ones. I can’t stop admiring the engineering aspect of all pop-up books, let alone, in such tiny dimensions. Nowadays, there is a legion of collectors and admirers around the world that share the passion for small size books.
From the collections management perspective, miniature books in the General Collections, presented quite a security risk. Because of the small size, they could be easily removed from the Library. They also offered additional challenge in the stack areas, where books are stored by subject. This means that a tiny book could be shelved side-by-side to a regular size or even a larger book, increasing the risk of loss.
So, to protect these books from damage or from getting lost among larger volumes, the Collections Management Division started pulling all books smaller than five inches from the stacks over a decade ago and processing them to be stored offsite. This is when I created the Miniature Project for General Collections, which nowadays also includes incoming material in miniature format being incorporated into the General Collection.
Besides searching and gathering miniature books from the stacks and other selected areas, the Miniature Project consists of several preservation actions aiming to increase the life expectancy of the items and protect them from further damage and theft. They include evaluating the physical condition of the books, removing acidic enclosures and rehousing each item inside custom-made acid-free enclosures when needed, applying metal detectors strips, completing inventory in the Library’s Bibliographic Database (ILS) and containerizing them for transport and offsite transfer. The ultimate storage place of the miniature books of the General Collections is at the Library of Congress Collections Storage Facility, located at Fort Meade, Maryland. This is a state-the-art environmentally controlled facility for our General and Special collections in operation since 2002. Don’t forget to check more details about our offsite collections storage facilities in our blogs.
Prior to transferring offsite, the miniature books are housed inside custom-made acid-free containers. They are mini versions of the regular size storage boxes, made at LOC. Each book’s barcode is linked to the barcode of the box and entered into our storage management system. Then, the mini storage boxes are placed on shelves at the offsite storage facility modules where the height is insufficient to fit any regular size book. In this way, we optimize our storage capacity at Fort Meade to a 100%.
In case you were wondering if the books would be accessible to patrons, they certainly are. However, due to the nature of the collection, the request is mediated by CMD, and the books can be viewed in reading rooms with special security measures. To raise awareness about the importance of stewardship, preservation, and access of this collection our interns and volunteers working in the Miniature Project have been designing bookmarks with details of some of the books processed and information about miniatures in general.
The Miniature Project is ongoing. Not only do we continue searching and processing small items previously shelved in the stacks, but also new miniature acquisitions made by the Library, which are routed directly to the Collections Management Division.
Because it’s holiday season, I want to end with this lovely image from our miniature collection about the joy of Christmas. And, if you happen to write letters to Santa or anyone else, no matter the format or size, I hope all your wishes come true in the new year.