The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Sizing books up

A couple of weeks back I posted some images with the aim of destabilizing some of our assumptions about what early modern texts look like. In the mix was an image of a “big” book followed by a “tiny” one.

It was, I think, obvious even on the computer screen that the big book was big and the tiny one was tiny. It was not, I don’t think, obvious how big and how tiny those books were. The big book is Holinshed’s Chronicles (STC 13569 copy 2), coming in at a massive 38 cm. tall; the tiny book is John Taylor’s thumb bible, Verbum sempiternum (STC 23811.2), rising to a minimal 4.5 cm. tall. But even knowing those numbers, it can be hard to translate that into something understandable without placing them side-by-side:

a size comparison
a size comparison

The thumb bible is 12% the size of the Holinshed. That’s a big difference. And yet on a computer screen, when you’re looking at the original images, there’s no difference in their size at all: both fit neatly into the space provided, contracting or expanding as needed. So what does it mean to talk about the size of books when we’re looking at digitized images of them? 

It might be worth, first, noting what the cues are that let us estimate a book’s size. When I said that it was obvious that the Holinshed and the thumb bible were, respectively, big and small, I don’t think I was wrong: I would imagine that even though the book took up the same amount of real estate on your screen, you could tell their approximate size. The size of the words on the Holinshed are quite small relative to the size of the page—so small that you can’t read them at first. And the size of the words on the thumb bible are absolutely gigantic relative to the size of the page.

So what shall we make of these books?

left: French psalter, 1576; right: Italian psalms, 1566
left: French psalter, 1576; right: Italian psalms, 1566

Both are books of psalms, the one on the left printed in France in 1576 and the one on the right printed in Italy in 1566. By our established criteria of the size of print relative to the size of the page, these books look like the same size. But how do they actually relate to each other?

left: 16mo, 13cm tall; right: 4to, 21cm tall
left: 16mo, 13 cm. tall; right: 4to, 21 cm. tall

So. The size of the text relative to the page sometimes helps, but sometimes doesn’t. You might have noticed in the first picture of them side-by-side that the one on the left was just slightly narrower than the one on the right, perhaps suggesting, if you’d thought carefully about it, a different format and therefore a different size. And, indeed, the one on the left is a 16mo, not a 4to, which explains in part the difference ratios of their height to width. 1 But, of course, format does not equal size: the Hamlet on the left, below, is a 4to that is 19 cm. tall, while the Odyssey on the right is an 8vo that is 18 cm. tall.

left: 4to at 19cm; right: 8vo at 18cm
left: 4to at 19 cm.; right: 8vo at 18 cm.

One of the disconcerting things about working with digitizations of books is that only some of the cues of size remain. Rather than encountering a book and knowing its dimensions—height, width, depth, heft—through the same set of visual and spatial cues we use to navigate the rest of meatspace life, we have to rely on a new set of cues. And I’m not sure that we’ve yet worked out what those cues are. Some catalogs include height information in their records (Hamnet has this for some records, but not for others); some images include rulers alongside the book to provide that information. And knowing that an image is of a book that’s 20 cm. tall can be helpful. But I’ll confess that I’m not very good at remembering how big 20 cm. is—knowing that it’s the equivalent of 7.9 inches helps me a bit, but frankly, not that much. (Placing objects next to books is more helpful for my brain, which is why I often use this slide of the two psalters shown in scale in relation to a Sharpie.)

What are the other cues that we use to think about scale and size when working with digital images? And does size matter? And what does size mean, anyway?

One of the exciting things about digitizations is that size changes at the drop of a hat—a 4.5 cm. book can be as big as a 45 cm. one, and a quilt that is too large to be gathered into any physical space can be shown in its entirety on your screen. There are wonderful advantages to being able to make both tiny things and enormous things comprehensible by viewing them at different scales. And, wow, is it easier to flip through a huge book when it is digital images that progress at a click rather than having to constantly readjust the foam support as the pages turn. But if the size of digitized objects is constantly readjusting, then how can we approach what their size is? What does tiny mean when it fills up your screen?

Here’s a selection of books as they look when you download their images from our digital image collection:

16 books, ranging from 32cm to 4.5cm in height, unscaled
16 books, ranging from 32 cm. to 4.5 cm. in height, unscaled

And here are those same books scaled for size: 2

The same books, shown in scale to each other
The same books, shown in scale to each other

Should digital collections show images at a set scale, so that a group of them appears something like what I’ve just shown? I think as a frequent user of digital collections, I would find such an interface hard to navigate. On the other hand, I do think it matters that some books are huge and some books are tiny. Their size tells us something about their intended use and about the economics of their production. Is reading a big book the same as reading a small book? Do the French psalms convey something different than the Italian ones? There can be valuable information about context and use and production that comes with thinking about a book’s size. But how can digital images give a sense of size when size is no longer bounded by the constraints of paper?

I don’t have a ready answer for these questions, but they are questions worth asking.

(If you want to find out more about the books I’ve used in this post, you can find them in this group on Luna.)

  1. I suspect trimming has more to do with it.
  2. To be precise: I took the second image, of a 22 cm.-tall book, as my baseline, and enlarged or shrank the other books accordingly, so that if 22 cm. = 8.5 in. on my slide, then a 12 cm. book was reduced to 4.64 in.


  • Excellent post, and the pictures really bring the point home. Size is important.

    I have the same difficulties you articulated in envisioning scale, even when written measurements and/or a shot with a ruler are provided (what’s that in inches? OK, how does that compare to a sheet of typing paper?). And even when I’ve done that, I usually don’t feel the sense of size in any visceral way.

    The times I have felt the immediate impact of a book’s size are when I’ve come across an image that includes the thumb of someone holding the book. That really registers directly, no mental translation needed at all: “OMG, that Book of Hours is tiny!!!!”

    A thumb in every shot is probably not the ideal way to digitize books. But maybe a cardboard cutout of a life size photo of a thumb next to the first or last image of a volume would be the way to go. I’m only half kidding.

    In the meantime, I’ll save the bookmark for my online centimeters to inches calculator and keep a piece of typing paper handy.

    • I think this is an excellent point—hands are a more intuitive sign of scale than rulers for me, too. Yes, we all have different sized hands, but I grasp it much more quickly. Other things that I’ve seen used for scale—quarters, a pack of cards (or cigarettes!)—also work better for me than a more abstract concept of inches or centimeters.

  • I could swear I came across an image database where you can select two or more thumbnails, then double-click to re-display them in relative size to each other. But maybe that was a dream?

  • Caveat about book height in online catalogs: rare cataloging rules round UP to the nearest centimeter (e.g., if it measures 21.1 cm it’s recorded as 22 cm), and they measure the binding, not the text block, unless they differ by 3 cm or more (in which case both are provided).

    • I should note that some of the measurements I use for the items in this piece were gathered not from their catalog records but from the information provided in the bindings database records. That information was usually given in millimeters, which explains in part why I describe the thumb bible as being 4.5 cm.

      And, if your vision of that image database wasn’t a dream, I’d love to know more and to check it out!

  • We used to record height as well in the catalog, rounding it up to the nearest centimeter. The problem was that you didn’t know what was being measured: height of the book block, height of the binding, or height of the set text. Only the last measurement is not (entirely) copy-specific, but it is also problematic: are page numbers or headlines included or not? How do you measure an oblong book? Where is the measurement taken? In the end we decided no longer to record height, except for manuscripts. The STCV only records measurements for broadsheets, but it clearly indicates that it is the type area, gives both height and width, and uses millimeters.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)