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Friday, November 12, 2010

Miniature Books in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Good books can be found in a variety of formats, including tiny bindings. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries has over 50 miniature books scattered among its collections in the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, the Smithsonian American Art & National Portrait Gallery Library, and the Bradley Room of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library. Measuring 3 inches or less, these unusual books are practical as well as whimsical. Although examples of miniature books have been found dating back to ancient times, the format became most popular in the 19th century, when advances in printing technology and illustration techniques facilitated the mass production of these books. Easily tucked inside a wallet or pocket, these volumes are often plain and utilitarian, although many examples are elaborately decorated. Two excellent histories of this genre include Louis W. Bondy's Miniature Books: Their History From the Beginnings to the Present Day (1981), and Doris V. Welsh's The History of Miniature Books (1987).

The specimens in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' collections date chiefly from the 19th and 20th centuries, and include, for example, Bibles, almanacs, poetry, and children's books. Some of these little treasures have pop-ups or other feats of paper engineering. Because of their size, miniature books present special challenges for shelving, preservation, and exhibition, but this fact only adds to their appeal as curiosities and collectibles.

Shown here are two shelves of miniature books from the Dibner Library, including these two examples:

Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Bijou edition). London: Henry Frowde and sold by Edgar J. Vickery, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, [not after 1916]. Call number: m PS2263 .A1 1916 SCDIRB  (pictured on the right)

Witty, Humorous and Merry Thoughts, selected by T.M. [i.e. Thomas Mason]. Glasgow: David Bryce & Son, [1895?]. This volume is housed in a decorated metal locket-like case with a magnifying glass mounted on the front cover, apparently as issued. Call number: mPN6175 .W83 SCDIRB  (pictured on the left)

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Institution Libraries


  1. I love mini things! Someday I will make the trek to Washington to see these up close!

  2. I have come across an old miniature books called The Old Grey Witch and The Twelve Little Geese. a historian told me that ot was from 1912 and from england and very rare.i was told that there was a copy at the smithsonian and was hoping someone may be able to give me a bit more history on this little book

  3. Hi Carissa Suchocko, and thanks for your question. The Smithsonian apparently doesn't have a copy of "The Old Grey Witch and the Twelve Little Geese." I searched the WorldCat database and found a record for a London edition published by Humphrey Milford, approximately 1912, with 63 pages, 7 cm. tall. Libraries at Indiana University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg have copies of this book. There are also copies dated approximately 1923 or 1924 on the British union catalog at Cambridge and Oxford --these British copies may actually be from the same edition as the one in WorldCat, with a different guess at the publication date. --Diane Shaw

  4. Hi Diane and Carissa, I just wanted to let you know that I have the little book of The Old Grey Witch and the Twelve Little Geese. This book was given to me by Grandmother when I was young and I decided to google to see if it was of any value? It is in perfect condition and has on the first page publisher : London, Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press

  5. I'm sorry I can't help you with estimating this item's value. You might want to check out the website of the Miniature Book Society for some resources for collectors of miniature books.