Little Red Books have been in the news recently with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell raising eyebrows in the House of Commons by reading passages from Chairman Mao during the Autumn Statement. Radio 4’s Broadcasting House decided to find out more about the appeal of miniature books and presenter Paddy O’Connell came into The London Library to explore a selection of some of The London Library’s collection of small and miniature books. In a fascinating interview, Helen O’Neill, our Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian, introduced some of its highlights.
The collection contains nearly 350 small books printed between the 16th and the 20th centuries, and measuring up to five inches tall. This includes several early Bibles, the beautifully illustrated A Simple Story by Elizabeth Inchbold (published in 1840), 1927 collections of James Joyce’s poems; and one of our earliest small books printed in 1515 by Aldus Manutius, the originator of the printed pocket book and the inventor of the space-saving italic typeface.
Even smaller, but equally eye-catching, are seven miniatures (defined as books under three inches tall), printed mostly in the 19th century, the golden age of miniature printing. Among these is the smallest version of Dante’s Divina Commedia in the world, the legendary ‘fly’s eye Dante’ of 1878. The Library also holds the smallest Authorized Version of the Bible, printed by David Bryce of Glasgow in 1896 which comes complete with its own magnifying glass. Among the childrens’ books in this collection a miniature edition of Kate Greenaway’s Alphabet from the 1880s stands out.
Small books often presented a showcase for the latest technology of each era where masters of printing and typography sought to display their skills and some of the craftsmanship on display on the small and miniature books collection is breathtaking. But the collection also casts an interesting light on the history of the print industry; particularly how mass manufacture and consumption led to the use of cheap materials in many small books. Chapbooks, for example, were disposable and so extant copies of these single sheet, paper wrapped ephemera are few. The Library holds a number of rare survivals of this type – for example Louis Janet’s Le Petit Sorcier, (part of a set of ‘almanachs microscopiques’ used as promotional materials for 18th century Paris shops); or the scandalous Friponniana, Gascogniana, and Grivoisiana which Simon Blocquet published from Lille in the early 19th century. A significant 20th century volume is Sali͡ut, a unique set of 18 children’s booklets printed in Moscow by Detgiz in 1944. Bound together they have survived the instability of the paper and prove a rare insight into Stalin era propaganda.
Much of our small and miniature book collection is housed in the familiar cabinet adjacent to the Reading Room. They reward further examination and as Broadcasting House presenter Paddy O’Connell describes are “a feast for the eyes” – even if you need a magnifying glass to appreciate them fully!