April 25, 2013

A miniature book collector and his little library


A visitor to the Headley-Whitney Museum examines a display of Neale Albert’s complete works of Shakespeare as part of a Miniature Book Society exhibit.

Neale Albert, a 75-year-old man who has 4,000 miniature books, was profiled—along with his tiny collection—in the New York Times on Monday. His titles include a 1923 edition of The Divine Comedy from 1921, that measures 3.5 by 2.25 inches and Portraits of the Sovereigns of England, which is about 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches, bound in orange morocco with blue silk and borders trimmed in gold. He even has a Checkhov short story “The Chameleon” which is said to be the smallest ever printed, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The practice of collecting tiny books has apparently been a collector’s hobby for centuries:

The idea of miniature publications has been around since the time of the ancient Babylonians who used to use tiny cuneiform tablets for legal documents and receipts. By the 19th century, publishers were producing miniature children’s books that could fit on miniature bookshelves, and in 1832, while it was still illegal to disseminate information about birth control, Charles Knowlton anonymously published his scandalous “Fruits of Philosophy” in miniature form, so it could be hidden easily.

Today, the the Miniature Book Society organizes events and exhibitions around the country for books that are smaller than three inches in height, width, or length. Neale Albert has served two terms as president of the society. He started his collection over ten years ago when he was trying to buy books to put in his doll house collection. Today, his collection is housed in a rooftop cottage above his apartment on the Upper East Side. Sometimes he commissions books to be made with “designer bindings” crafted by an artist. In an audio interview with Book Binding Now from 2011, Albert explains:

“First I was buying just dollhouse sized books…Then I find out that there are people called designer binders. They are artists who happen to be working in leather and vellum, who make paintings in the shape of miniature books. Then I started sending out books in my collection to be rebound… Today they do modern versions of book-bindings, a contemporary take on a traditional binding.. You’re either a collector or you’re not. Collecting isn’t about having things, it’s about finding things and learning about them.”


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.