UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 09 Winter 18 Library
Francesco Scaramuzza and Cesare Fenini, Galleria Dantesca Microscopica: 30 Fotografie Dei Disegni. Milano: Ulrico Hoepli, 1880. (McGehee 04883) (Credit: Shane Lin)
UVA Libraries

Eminent Miniatures


Don’t judge a book by its cover (size). That was the key message behind a unique exhibition of miniature books, Eminent Miniatures: from the McGehee Miniature Book Collection, at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library last summer. In 2005, Caroline Brandt donated her entire collection to the library. Now 90 years old, Brandt has been collecting the tiny tomes for as long as she can remember, and her 15,000-volume collection is among the biggest of its kind in the world. What the collection lacks in real estate (UVA Today reported that the entire collection fits on just two sides of compact shelving), it more than makes up for in stature. Brandt co-founded the Miniature Book Society in 1983, and the group held its annual meeting, or Grand Conclave, at the Omni on the Downtown Mall last summer to coincide with the exhibition. 

“Many miniature books embody the idea of a chef-d’oeuvre – a masterpiece that demonstrates a craftsman’s skill.  It is exceedingly difficult to make a miniature book that functions like you expect a book should, and enhances its subject.  When these works succeed, they are breathtaking,” said Molly Schwartzburg, Curator at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. In the U.S., a book is considered miniature if it is no bigger than three inches in width, height and thickness, according to the Society’s website. Last summer’s exhibition featured examples produced by eminent presses and artists best known for what we might call “oversized” books: those that exceed this height. If you become expert enough in the field, as Brandt has spent a lifetime doing, you can find all kinds of subjects have gotten the mini-treatment, by an astonishing range of creators. In fact, the miniature book is said to date all the way back to Sumerian Clay tablets in 2500 BC. They also popped up in the middle ages, often as prayer books. With the advent of the printing press, they developed into something of a fad, attracting the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte, who, it is said, amassed his own miniature book collection, and often carried them with him on his conquests. There is no topic too big to get little. You can find everything from The Declaration of Independence to the Bible writ small, as it were. If you really want to put miniature books in perspective, visit the Miniature Book Society website at www.mbs.org.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles: Conclusion & Retrospection. Loket, Czech Republic: Jan and Jarmila Sobota, 2006. Bound in black calf suede and leather with colored leather onlays. No. 11 of 20. (McGehee 05222).

The master design binder Jan Sobota (1939-2012) practiced his craft in Czechoslovakia until defecting with his family in 1982 and settling in the United States in 1984. He worked as a conservator and, with his wife Jarmila, ran a gallery and taught bookbinding. Jarmila trained under Jan, becoming a master binder in 1997, the same year that the family returned to the now Czech Republic. Jan Sobota gained renown for his innovative bindings, works of art that succeed in being both functional and sculptural. Individually and in collaboration, he and Jarmila produced a significant body of miniature books, whimsical and often witty works that take full advantage of the expressive opportunities of diminutive scale.
(Photo: Shane Lin)
Read the next story