Throughout history, people have been fascinated by extremes, whether it’s the tallest mountain, the longest river or the deepest sea.
Julian Edison is no exception — only instead of things large, it’s small books that fascinate him.
Edison, a noted miniature book collector, is displaying approximately 200 of his volumes in the exhibition “Miniature Books: 4,000 Years of Tiny Treasures,” which recently opened at Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Library. The exhibition is hosted by the University Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and is housed in the Ginkgo Reading Room and the Grand Staircase Lobby on Level 1. The exhibition is free and open to the public through June 6.
Miniature books have served many purposes throughout history, according to Edison. Their small size makes them perfect for the hands of children. Their portability made them useful as political propaganda, dictionaries, religious books and almanacs. Beautifully illustrated miniature books have been created for aesthetic purposes, and others were made to amaze as curiosities.
The books may have different purposes, but they have one feature in common: For a book to be considered miniature in the United States, it must measure no bigger than 3 inches by 3 inches. The books are so small that the library had to make special cradles to display them.
Among the books featured in the exhibition are:
• The first book on contraception
• Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, first published in book form as a miniature
• “Facts about the Candidate,” which was distributed during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential campaign
• A copy of a miniature book astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin brought to the moon in 1969
• A Japanese prayer scroll from 770 A.D., which is the oldest-known text printing on paper
• The smallest book ever printed with movable type. This book — containing a letter by Galileo on science and religion — is less than one inch in height, composed of 200 pages and printed in 1896. “The type font was so tiny that the work was said to have seriously injured the eyesight of both the compositor and corrector,” Edison said. “It took one month just to set and print 30 pages. That book is the greatest marvel in miniature book publishing.”
Many of the items displayed at the WUSTL exhibition were taken from an earlier showing of Edison’s books at the Grolier Club in New York City. Both exhibitions displayed just a part of Edison’s collection. Many of his books were featured in a book he co-wrote with Anne C. Bromer, which shares the same title as the exhibition and is available at Washington University’s Campus Store, located in Mallinckrodt Student Center, as well as from Amazon.com and other booksellers. It recently won first place as the best-designed gift book at the 2008 New York Book Show.
Edison, who has served as the editor of “Miniature Book News” for more than 40 years, first became interested in miniature books in 1960 after his wife gave him a miniature nine-volume set of Shakespeare’s complete works on their first wedding anniversary. They were the first miniature books Edison had ever seen, and he was intrigued. His quest for more such small books during the past half-century has taken him to auction houses, book fairs and flea markets around the globe.
Edison, a member of the Washington University Libraries’ National Council, is hesitant to name a favorite among his collection. “They’re like grandchildren,” said Edison, who has two grandkids himself. “They are all my favorites.”
For more information on the exhibit, directions or library hours, please call 314-935-5495 or visit library.wustl.edu/about/olinhours.html.