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Tiny books offer a squint at the past

The key measures 2 and 9/16 inches high. The book is 13/16 of an inch high by 9/16 of an inch wide.
The key measures 2 and 9/16 inches high. The book is 13/16 of an inch high by 9/16 of an inch wide.
Photo / Lois Beattie

Read the fine print... if you can.

Reproductions of the smallest books in the MIT collection -- 13/16 of an inch high by 9/16 of an inch wide -- are on display at the MIT Archives and Special Collections (Rm 14N-118) until the end of March. A magnifying glass is provided to read the two-point type (1/36 of an inch high) in The Addresses of Abraham Lincoln and the even smaller lettering in Extracts from the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge.

"Without a magnifying glass, I could make out individual words," said archivist Jeffrey Mifflin, who is nearsighted and does not need glasses to read normal text. "But it would be very difficult to read a whole page." Mr. Mifflin, a manuscript specialist, wrote the text for the online description of the exhibit. "I read enough to ferret out information for the exhibit," he said. "It was a strain on the eyes."

Both original volumes are bound in leather, with gold tooling, using stitched signatures. The Archives preserves the delicate books in a special case equipped with ribbons to lift them.

The miniature books were published by the training division of the Kingsport Press in Tennessee as student exercises in 1929 and 1930. Both books were set in larger type, photographically reduced and printed by means of an offset process.

The Lincoln book, published in 1929, contains four complete speeches in 160 pages, with approximately 50 words per page in 10 lines of two-point type. In an introduction, members of the class say they chose Lincoln for their project because no other author using the English language has surpassed him "in putting a large amount of human feeling within the compass of a few words."

The 130-pager Coolidge miniature contains 12 lines per page (approximately 60 words).

The books, a gift from MIT Corporation member Theodore M. Vail, may be inspected between 11:30am and 4pm, Monday through Friday. The reproductions and exhibit were created by Lois Beattie, an administrative staff assistant at the Archives.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 28, 2001.

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