Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC) has over 200 miniature books in its collection. Roughly half of the miniature books in RBSC’s collection are books for children, though the collection also includes Bibles, works of history and literature, dictionaries, bibliographies, art, and natural history. The books are primarily written in English, although some are in German, French, Spanish, Latin, Portuguese, Russian, Slovenian, and Croatian. Their publication dates span from 1667 to 2011. Many of the collection's modern books are artists' or fine press books.
Miniature books are designed to be small in size, yet still readable without magnification (whereas those that are tiny enough to need magnification are often referred to as ‘micro-miniatures'). According to the Miniature Book Society ("What Is a Miniature Book?"), miniature books should be no larger than three inches in height (7.5 cm), width, or thickness, although that definition is sometimes extended to four inches (as is the case at RBSC).
Initially, miniature books were produced for both practicality and aesthetic pleasure. It was convenient to have large publications transcribed into miniature format for ease of storage—Victorian women could discreetly reference etiquette books ("What Is a Miniature Book?”); religious practitioners could have devotional literature on hand at all times; merchants could quickly retrieve information on prices and conversions; and those with revolutionary and/or unfavorable ideas could easily hide their texts (Ricciardi, “Miniature Books”). In addition to their practicality, miniature books also drew attention due to a sense of beauty and intrigue in small objects as well as the technical challenge of creation.
Although there is some debate about the origins of miniature books, some consider the earliest iterations to be Sumerian clay tablets with cuneiform text that are dated as far back as 2500 BCE (“What Is a Miniature Book?”). Centuries later, in 770 CE, Empress Shōtoku of Japan ordered that Buddhist prayers be printed on miniature scrolls of exceptionally fine paper and delivered around the empire. According to the Oxford Companion to the Book, however, the earliest miniatures were manuscripts written on papyrus and parchment in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE and subsequently worn on clothing to ward off spirits. Others believe miniature books originated in the Middle Ages, when tiny codices, such as books of hours, contained personal devotional texts written on the finest parchment (Ovendon, "Miniature Books").
With the advent of print in the 15th century, printed miniature books began appearing and, after the Reformation in the 16th century, bibles became the most popular of the miniature texts. This was evidenced in the success of Thumb Bibles (named for the character Tom Thumb of English folklore) which contained abridged versions of the Bible and were produced across Europe and North America (Ovendon, "Miniature Books"). Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, miniatures of Greek and Latin classics rose in popularity among students who wished to have access to school texts outside the classroom. In the 19th century, miniature versions of novelty books became a publishing phenomenon because they were highly sought after and collectible, especially during the holidays. The minis began to be marketed primarily to children and were often sold as box sets containing entire small libraries.
The idea of a small library was further popularized in 1922, when Queen Mary of the U.K. was gifted with two hundred miniature books for display in the library of her doll house ("What Is a Miniature Book?"). The 1900s saw further iterations of the miniature book, particularly in the political sphere. The most widely produced example is Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book that was printed by the millions in the 1960s, but there were earlier examples of propaganda published by the Nazi Party in exchange for donations in the 1930s (Ovendon, "Miniature Books").
Today, miniature books are still sought-after collectors' items. They also continue to be created and published by private presses that specialize in fine press printing and bookbinding.
Ovenden, Richard. “Miniature Books.” In The Oxford Companion to the Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198606536.001.0001/acref-9780198606536-e-3189.
Ricciardi, Annalisa. “Miniature Books: A Lilliputian World - Part One.” British Library: Americas and Oceania Collections Blog (blog), August 9, 2017. https://blogs.bl.uk/americas/2017/08/miniature-books-a-lilliputian-world-part-one.html.
Miniature Book Society. “What is a Miniature Book?” n.d. https://www.mbs.org/.