The Art of Tiny Books

All images courtesy of Tony Firman Bookbinding.

Have you ever thought about the complexities of books? The topics within? How they are brought to life? What about their size? Now there’s something to think about … from the 2,300-page Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) to the tiny ABC books of 26 pages.

Now, enter the world of the Miniature Book …

On a hot, late summer afternoon, a Friends of Pack Library volunteer was picking up a book donation. Scattered about the lovely home was a myriad of small books, displayed on shelves as art and sitting on side tables, intriguing in their perfection.
Once the donated books were secured, and with clear interest on the part of the volunteer, the book donor was kind enough to talk about these miniature works of art, which included a tour of his studio.

Growing up in England, the public library was Tony Firman’s second home. As a young boy, his mother taught him the importance of books and reading, and the library became an essential part of his life. Tony was also fortunate enough to attend a trade school, prior to University, where he was taught skills that would resonate throughout his life.

Avid readers and lovers of books, Tony and his late wife, Patricia Caernarven-Smith, were also collectors. Bookbinding, one of those trade school skills, came in handy whenever a book they had purchased was in need of repair, and over time, he began to restore books professionally.

At some point, someone brought him a tiny book for repair and he was hooked. At the time, Tony didn’t know that these small books were “a thing.” In the US, “miniature books” are designated as such if they are no more than 3 inches in height, width and thickness. And Tony thought, “I should try making these.”

Tony began making his own books after discovering Project Gutenberg, an online library of free eBooks. Tony explains, “This wonderful website allowed me to download some classic books and create my own copies. Since then, they have been the source of all my miniature books too.”

It takes exceptional skill to create miniature books. The creator must understand the intricacies of bookbinding, along with the changes required to create a book that is both readable as well as beautiful.

You may be wondering about the origins of miniature books. That question is debatable, but it appears that they have always been around — miniature manuscripts for example — even before the printing press. It’s well documented that they’ve been with us since medieval times and collectors generally agree that these small books were created for convenience. As an example, in earlier centuries, religious people carried mini gospels and books of hours. Travelers were known to carry them because they fit easily in the pocket of a waistcoat, while miniature etiquette books were frequently accessed by young Victorian women who carried them in their reticules.

With technological advances during the 19th century, smaller and smaller type became available, expanding the number and artistry of these tiny masterpieces. In the 1920s, even the English royalty got in on the action when Queen Mary requested postage-sized books be created for the miniature library in her miniature doll house.

A university friend of Tony’s explained the nuances of miniature books and showed him the university’s large collection in their rare books room. He also introduced Tony to the Miniature Book Society (MBS), an international organization for collectors, creators and book dealers.

Established in 1983, MBS is a non-profit with a mission to facilitate interest in all facets of miniature books. They provide a forum for the exchange of information and house their archives, which include about 16,000 mini books, at Indiana University’s Lilly Library in Bloomington. Through their newsletters and outreach activities, they actively promote all aspects of the book arts with special affection for the small format.

Each year, MBS holds an annual gathering, called a Conclave, for its members. This year, the fete will be online, taking place from September 30-October 3. In 2012, the Conclave was held in Asheville. Tony joined MBS in 2010 and is currently their board president.

Also in 2010, Tony began to focus specifically on miniature books, making small editions and selling them, issuing at least one a month under his publishing company, Plum Park Press.

Tony generally selects books with an interesting binding design in mind. He commented, “I like to make books that look nice and are interesting to work on. Photos and illustrations are really important.” Tony leans toward books that he likes to read, publishing fiction and non-fiction in alternate months.

Eventually, Pat was so drawn into the world of miniature books, she started her own press, The Wild Onion Press, authoring and creating many of the books offered.

Nipping Press

At about that time, Tony, realizing that his regular sized bookbinding equipment was cumbersome, took his woodworking skills learned in that English trade school and scaled the equipment down to a size specifically for miniature books. Based on traditional European bookbinding equipment, they are beautifully handcrafted, much smaller versions, albeit made from solid maple.

The most amazing miniature book Tony has ever held was from a book dealer in Maine, priced at $7,000. It was an illuminated manuscript, a Book of Hours, from the 19th century, one just like those created before printing. Tony’s books typically sell for under $50.

Tony has a vast library, with many beautifully bound and intricate miniature books. One might find a charming and wonderful book of poetry, or perhaps a Japanese book with an accordion fold, or even some pop-ups or other moveable parts.

Tony spoke fondly of Hamlet, not the play, but more of a tale from Shakespeare; a small book that looks remarkably like a castle with a drawbridge that drops out from its cover. Books of such great artistic design draw us further and further into the world of miniature books.

You can see a display of Miniature Books at Pack Memorial Library at the entrance to Bookends. A variety of books created and published by Tony Firman, including some of those he’s collected will be on display through October 2021.

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