April 20, 2018

University of Iowa Library IDs Tiny Tome

The mystery book

The mystery book

University of Iowa outreach librarian Colleen Theisen’s recent social media efforts are proof that outreach can create new connections inside as well as outside the library, leading to new discoveries.

On August 2, Theisen started a series of Facebook posts highlighting the largest, smallest, and oldest items in the libraries’ collection. For smallest, on August 5, she posted about a 4x4mm book, so small it couldn’t be identified.

Theisen’s post caught the attention of the libraries’ conservator Giselle Simón, who informed Theisen that the library had a new microscope. Using this more powerful tool, the library was able to identify the book, despite some damage, and to reunite it with a larger version with which it had originally been sold. It turns out to be a section of the Bible, published by Toppan Printing Company to coincide with the New York World’s Fair in 1965.

Colleen Theisen at the microscope

Colleen Theisen at the microscope

Toppan is still a going concern and is still making microbooks. In March, the Tokyo-based printing company produced a 22-page Shiki no Kusabana (Flowers of Seasons) with .75 millimeter pages and letters .01 millimeters wide.

Now that the library staff knows who made the book, they also know how it was done. Theisen tracked down a reference which explained that the book had been produced by “a new micro-printing process. An ultra-high-resolution-lens was used to take a camera proof of a phototype set of the original,” leading to the equivalent of .34 point type, according to the December, 1965 edition of Miniature Book News.

“We purchased the new microscope to upgrade an older one with less power just last winter,” Simón said. When it’s not reading Bibles, Simón told LJ, the new $2500 microscope is usually used to identify and investigate fibers and pigments found in paper and books to help determine the best conservation treatment. It is also used for media consolidation, a process in which conservators check whether printed ink, manuscript ink, or hand applied paint is flaking away and, if it is, apply an appropriate adhesive in a fine mist or with a very small brush.

The use of the microscope is also revising the library’s theories of the book’s history. Theisen and the conservation lab assistants initially thought that damage to the book may have resulted from abrasion caused during a previous attempt to read it. But Simón looked at it under the highest magnification and now thinks the damage is “a flaw in the paper or a printing error—something original to the book,” Theisen told LJ.

The discovery generated far greater publicity for the library and its 4000 volume Charlotte Smith Collection of Miniature Books than your average Facebook promotion; it was picked up by The Atlantic.

The library wasn’t able to find any auction records for this or other, similar ultra-microminiatures, so no current value has been established. At any rate, the question is academic. Said Theisen, “as a special collections library, each and every item’s value is its education and research value, and they will not be sold, so they are priceless.”

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Nicholas Theisen says:

    Yeah, but you’d still want an appraisal for insurance purposes. I’d give you, say, three dollars and firty cents. I could maybe come up to four.

  2. Bravo