The miniature book collection at the Clark Library is probably one of our most eye-catching yet least-used collections. As much as I would love to see our scholars pore over these tiny tomes, magnifying glasses in hand, the fact of the matter is that the miniature books hardly leave their shelf. However, whenever there is a tour or a class visit, invariably there is at least one person who notices the cabinet and is instantly fascinated, asking “Are they real?” and “Can you actually read them?” I am here to tell you that yes, they are real books, and yes, you might have to squint, but you can read them.
There are a few of the miniature books in the collection that I would like to highlight, particularly Barbara Raheb’s Oscar Wilde editions. Our Oscar Wilde collection is extensive (and well-used) but Raheb’s books are unlike any other, as they are only 24 millimeters tall. That’s slightly less than an inch!
Raheb first came to miniature books by way of miniature dollhouse accessories. According to Robert C. Bradbury’s 20th Century United States Miniature Books, it was Queen Mary’s dollhouse at Windsor Castle that first captured Raheb’s attention, and she began producing miniature books for dollhouses in 1976 under the name Mudlark Miniatures. In 1980 she began using the imprint Pennyweight Press and focused her attention on books for miniature book collectors. Raheb’s prolific output (over five hundred miniature books according to Bradbury) and the high caliber of her work earned her the Miniature Book Society’s Norman W. Forgue award in 1995 for her outstanding contributions to the miniature book world.
These miniatures are undeniably “real books.” Raheb’s books are bound in leatherette, have marbled endpapers and gilt titles on the covers and spines, are illustrated and have text. And as long as there have been books, there have been miniature books. A excellent overview of miniature book history can be found over at the Lilly Library’s online exhibit “4000 Years of Miniature Books” [http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/miniatures/index.shtml] But the miniatures are nearly impossible to read without a magnifying glass. And if books are meant to be read, what, then, is their appeal? For starters, they are easier to carry around (this was important for the traveling libraries) and they are sometimes easier to hold (and this was important for children’s books). Miniature books are also easier to conceal. The first book on contraception, Fruits of Philosophy; or, The Private Companion of Young Married People, by Dr. Charles Knowlton in 1832 was a mere 2 7/8 by 2 1/2 inches. (When Knowlton, who did not include his name on the book, was discovered as the author, he was briefly jailed.) [“Why Miniature Books?” By Anne C. Bromer, http://www.go-star.com/antiquing/miniature-books.htm%5D
But there is no need these days to conceal The Picture of Dorian Gray or The Selfish Giant and paperbacks are easy enough to carry around. Why mini books today and why so incredibly mini? As Doris Welsh points out in the The History of Miniature Books, miniature books are charming. They captivate the imagination. They are tiny marvels that take a tremendous amount of effort and time. For me, their tininess draws attention to aspects of bookmaking that I might overlook simply due to over-familiarity. I rarely think about font-size with most books, but show me a miniature book and suddenly I want to know how tiny the type is. (Raheb’s are done in 9-point font and then photographically reduced. In the nineteenth century, before the advent of photoreduction, typesetters and publishers cast incredibly tiny 2- and 3-point fonts.) Miniature books, such as “Thumb Bibles” and “lilliput dictionaries,” were often produced for their novelty and to show off the publisher’s skills. What’s striking to me when looking at pictures of miniature books in bibliographies or online is that — unless there is something else in the picture to show the scale — I would never be able to guess just how incredibly small and marvelous these books really are.