Revealed: A Book the Size of a Ladybug

By Rebecca J. Rosen
9450131433_e11ae6c15c_c.jpg Colleen Theisen

The University of Iowa library contains more than 4,000 miniature books, all measuring fewer than three inches in either height, width, or both. Three inches is not a lot for a book, but three inches is outright capacious when compared with a little red bug of a book, one of the smallest objects in the entire collection, measuring 0.138 inches square and 0.04 inches thick.

Based on the cover, library staff assumed the little book was a Bible, or at least some part of one, and a photograph taken through a magnifying glass and cleaned up on Photoshop confirmed this suspicion. But everything else about it was unknown. Librarian Colleen Theisen, who found it in a box marked "microminiatures," calls it the "most perplexing" of the miniature collection: a book so small it could not be read by the naked eye. What was it? Who made it and when? Whatever clues its text contained were locked between its tiny binding.

On Monday Theisen highlighted the mysterious book on the Tumblr and Facebook page of the library's special collections division, which brought the volume to the attention of Giselle Simón, the library's conservator. Simon suggested putting the library's new microscope to use. 

viewing.jpg Colleen Theisen

Theisen, with the help of Candida Pagan, a student in the university's Center for the Book, carefully cracked open the pages and put it under the microscope. Sure enough, there was the publisher's imprint: Toppan Printing Co., LTD. (The page was, Theisen writes in a post about the discovery, a bit damaged from earlier attempts to read it.)

toppan.jpgColleen Theisen

Working backward, Theisen was able to piece together more about the book's provenance. It had originally been part of a two-book set, sold at the World's Fair in New York in 1965. At the time, they tiny book was thought to be (and marketed as) the world's smallest book, though that record has since been broken. The "larger" sibling book (measuring a hefty 1 3/8" by 1 3/8" and thus still, technically, a miniature) was also part of the library's collection, though somehow over the years the two items had been separated. 

Both books contain the exact same content, the text of Chapter 1 of the King James version of Genesis, but the larger book's font is at 10 times the size. The tiny little one had once been inside a case, to be worn as a charm or attached to a set of keys. It makes sense that people would find meaning in an unreadable book this way, Theisen muses -- more like a cross than a book, a little piece of your faith to always have by your side (this was, after all, long before the age of Bible apps).

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The two books have already "been reunited and they will be cataloged together," Theisen writes. (Colleen Theisen)

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The text under the microscope (Colleen Theisen)

But it's not as though people need a reason to make a book so tiny it can't properly function as a book, at least not in the normal sense of a book as something you read. "People have loved miniature books for a long, long time," Theisen told me. In fact, the library recently acquired one from the 15th century -- the earliest days of European printing. And what's not to love? "They're cute; they're adorable; there's just something enchanting about something so small."

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The shelves of the library's miniature book collection (Colleen Theisen)



H/t Sarah Werner

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/08/revealed-a-book-the-size-of-a-ladybug/278427/