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About Miniature Books

A miniature book is characterized by its size: a book counts as ‘miniature’ only if it is bound and less than 3” (76 mm) in length and width. Larger books, up to 4” (100 mm) are considered ‘macrominiatures’. Especially tiny books are called ‘microminiatures’ (less than 1” or 25 mm) and ‘ultra-microminiatures’ (less than 1/4″ or 6 mm). All of these sizes are represented in the Toth Collection.

Books have been produced in miniature size for thousands of years, and today miniature books are created and collected all over the world. The allure of miniature books is often attributed to their practicality, portability, curiosity, and aesthetic value. Miniatures are practical for the small size of children’s hands (see selections of Children’s Literature from the Toth Collection), and quite portable for travel. They can also be easily stowed or hidden in a pocket or purse, and then used discretely. Many collectors point out that the miniature size presents challenges to all the artisans involved in bookmaking, including typesetters, printers, illustrators, and binders.

The largest collection of miniature books in the world is that of the Lilly Library (University of Indiana, Bloomington) at over 16,000 volumes. The Lilly’s enormous collection began with a donation of 8,000 minis from mini book collector and scholar Ruth Adomeit. The second largest collection of miniature books is the McGehee Miniature Book Collection at the University of Virginia which includes over 15,000 miniatures, almost half donated by Caroline Yarnall McGehee Lindemann Brandt. In Canada, there are collections of miniature books between several hundred and several thousand at McGill University, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and the Toronto Public Library.

Creating Miniature Books

The earliest miniature books were clay cuneiform tablets, usually less than two inches square, produced thousands of years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. These tablets were created by pressing the end of a reed stylus into wet clay, and then drying the block in the sun. In the Middle Ages, manuscript culture led to the creation of miniature manuscripts, books created entirely by hand, such as heavily-decorated Books of Hours and Psalters. Miniature manuscripts were created using feather quill pens and ink on vellum or paper, and then bound by a stationer or bookbinder.

The moveable-type printing press emerged in the West in the mid-sixteenth century, and quickly led to the printing of miniature books. Wooden type was quickly set aside for lead type, which could be cut smaller and more precisely, allowing for miniature letters to remain clear and legible when printed. The Diurnale Mogantinum, printed in 1468 by Peter Schoffer, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing assistant, is considered the first printed miniature book, and qualifies as an incunabulum (a term applied to books printed before 1501). Printed minis are often considered an attestation to the skill of the printer; sometimes apprentices were tasked with printing a mini book in order to hone or prove his skill. Minis likewise test the skill of all artisans involved in the printing process, including illustrator and bookbinder. In terms of font size today, minis are often set with 2.5- to 4.5-point font.

Technological advancements in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made it easier to print increasingly smaller books – and the growing popularity of minis made their production more profitable. Type casting machines allowed for type to be cut by machine, rather than by hand, allowing for smaller fonts to be created. In some cases, especially for ultra-microminiature books, entire pages are cut rather than individual letters. Further technological developments included photographic reduction, which combined with lithographical printing allowed for the reduction of so-called ‘mother books’ into miniaturized versions.

Beginning in the 1970s, a number of artists and independent publishers began to experiment with the form of a miniature book to explore new methods of printing, binding, and illustrating. Books in this category are often termed fine press and artists’ books, and range from conventionally bound tomes to pop-up books to wearable works of art that transcend the category of ‘book’. These are often produced entirely by hand and in very limited numbers, with their aesthetic value and rarity contributing to their appeal (see some examples on the Curiosities & Miscellanea page of this exhibition).

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