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The Book As Artifact: Unusual Book Forms

indexUnusual book forms help authors and illustrators express themselves in new ways, help readers think beyond traditional books, or facilitate reading in some way.

For instance, Bibles and dictionaries sometimes have notches called thumb cuts that readers can use to locate entries. These are sometimes called cut-in indexes (shown on right).

In some cases these books simply provide foldout diagrams, documents, and maps. In others, the pages are manipulated as tools or works of art. While these are sometimes bound into the book, in other cases these elements are placed in folders or pockets.

Braille Books

girl readingBraille is an embossed print system invented by Louis Braille in 1829. Developed for readers with visual challenges, this tactile approach to writing involves letters of the alphabet being represented by a combination of six raised dots arranged in columns three dots high and two dots wide.

The image on the right shows a young girl reading The Velveteen Rabbit in braille at the New York Institute for the Blind (1926).

Braille can be produced by hand using a slate and stylus. Today, braille is often produced using a computer with braille translation software and a brailler embosser.

In addition to Braille, other techniques may be used on books designed for the blind and visually impaired. For instance, thermoform graphics are produced for visuals. Rather than a standard binding, many books have a lay-flat binding or spiral binding.

The image (by antonioxalonso) below shows a person reading a braille book with two fingers.


Documents and Plates

Some illustrated books contain sets of plates, maps, or documents that accompany the book. For instance, 1776: The Illustrated Edition by David McCullough 27 removable realia of source documents.

The Cathy's book series by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman contain evidence packets filled with fictional documents such as letters, birth certificates, doodles, and notes.

Folded maps are often part of history, country studies, and travel books.

The image below shows the map pocket and part of a large map in the back of a Farm Journal Rural Directory of Wood County, Ohio (1916).

map pocketmaps

The Yosemite Guide Book (1869) contains a folded map placed in the back cover of the book. The travels of Pedro de Cieza de Léon, A.D. 1532-50, contained in the first part of his Chronicle of Peru (1864) contains a fold-out map bound into the front cover of the book that can be used as a reference when reading this personal travel narrative.

In the The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 1670-1970 (1970), fold out maps are bound into the book as shown below.

Botanical Map

Plates. Book illustrations are sometimes printed a separate left than into the body of the text. In some cases, a different quality of paper is used. Tissue paper is sometimes used to separate the facing page to prevent rubbing. Plates are often displayed in groups at the middle or end of a book rather than distributed throughout. Rather than being part of the regular pagination, they are often given roman numerals that appear as a list in the front matter of the book.

In the 19th century, books often contained illustrations created from metal engravings. The images were printed on different pieces of paper and glued into each book. Fashion, costume, and military uniform books often contained these types of illustrations.

Try It!
Explore the book The Historic Styles of Ornament published in 1898.
It contains 100 color plates. If you do a search for "color plates" in you can find many more examples.

Highly illustrated books often contained color plates along with little additional text. These books were sometimes published with works by famous artists or theme such as animals or the western frontier.

The children's book below by Grace James titled Green Willow and other Japanese Fairy Tales (1910) incorporates beautiful color plates throughout. The forty illustrations are by Warwick Goble (1892-1943).



Edible Book

An edible book has the appearance of a book but is made of ingredients that can be consumed as food.


The image above shows an edible book from the Topeka 7 Shawnee County Public Library edible book contest. Notice that the edible contains a cover, title page, and additional pages.

goutGastronome Jean Anthelme brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) is known as the father of the edible book. Famous for the book Physiologie de Gout or Physiology of Taste, his birthday is also April Fool's Day.

The April Fool's reference is also connected with the children's book The Phantom Tollbooth in which characters literally "eat their words".

Around April 1 each year, the International Edible Book Festival is held on what's known as Edible Book Day. Many libraries, schools, and communities including the University of Illinois and Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library hold edible book festivals.

Books are photographed and submitted to the Books2Eat website, then are eaten as part of the festivities.

Explore lots of examples of edible books at Pinterest.

Festival Book

A festival book is a book produced in connection with a celebration such as a coronation or wedding. It is normally the official publication of the event. Festival books were popular from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The books often contained plates with illustrations in addition to text and were distributed to participants as souvenirs.

A keepsake book is an item distributed for a particular occasion such as a commemorative event.

According to Harthan (1981), festival books, or fete books were popular in the 17th century. Often commemorating royal occasions, these books were of the finest quality recording an event. Theatrical performances, marriages, and funerals were all occasions for special books. Although often classified as ephemeral, these books could make lasting impressions.

Abraham Bosse (c. 1602-1676) was an artist and printmaker known for his etchings found in many festival books. In many cases, the illustrations showed grand hall layouts, table settings, music groups, and other elements of the occasion.

The image below is by Abraham Bosse from a Ceremony at Fontainebleau.


In 1671, Spain produced a festival book commemorating the canonization of Spain's only royal saint, St. Ferdinand III. The work contained large folding plates by Fernando de La Torre Farfan.

The images below are from a Spanish festival in 1672.


calIn the 18th century, souvenir volumes great in popularity. According to Harthan (1981, 160), Venetian type decorated books appeared as souvenir volumes. They would have congratulatory verses and be given away on special occasions such as elections, marriages, and births. These ephemeral books contained engraved title pages with attractive covers. Well-known engravers like Franscesco Bartolozzi participated in these kinds of works.

The image below is by from a festival book by Franscesco Bartolozzi celebrating the victory of June 1 1794.

Festival books continued to be produced for special events such as coronations.

According to Harthan (1981, 180), in the 18th century

"royal patronage established 'le style troubadour' as the fashionable face of Romanticism."

In 1829 two famous costume balls were held in Paris. Both were commemorated with festival book.

Gift Books

A gift book is an elaborately decorated book intended to be given as a book. Generally associated with the 19th century, they contained fancy type, high-quality illustrations, and expensive bindings. Explore some examples. Find others at

giftGift books became popular in the early 19th century. These books were often deluxe editions of popular works that included color illustrations and elegant bindings. During the Victorian age, people enjoyed reading works of poetry by British poets.

John Sliegh and Birket Foster's Odes and Sonnets published by George Routledge & Company is an excellent example. Foster was known for his watercolors and engravings.

The image on the right is by Foster from The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1880).

A birthday book is a book containing a quote for each day of the year and space for autographs. They were popular during the Victorian period.


Miniature Books

A miniature book is a very tiny scale book. These very small books measure no more than three inches in height or width. Because they are so small, the type generally use a type size of 6-point or less. Miniature books can be found in all genre including almanacs, Bibles, children's, classics, and poetry. Sometimes a tiny version of a book may be published. These are called miniature editions.

The term bibelot is sometimes used to describe a miniature book of fine quality.

A necklace book is an example of a miniature book. Covered in leather or metal, it's designed to be worn about the neck or on a pendant as a piece of jewelry.

For lots of examples, explore an online exhibition:

Novelty Books

From intricate pop-up books to durable board books, a wide variety of novelty books have been produced since the 19th century. These books contain special features such as moving parts or are made from unusual materials such as fabric. Although many novelty books are made for children, some are also of interest to adults.

Star Wars: A Pop-up Guide to the Galaxy (2012) by Matthew Reinhart (1971-) became a sensation of Star Wars fans of all ages. Reinhart's Encyclopedia Mythologica: Fairies and Other Magical Creatures is another example of his pop-up work.

Movable Books

Some books contain pictures that move when a tab, lever, or string is pushed or pulled. Called movable books, they may contain rotating wheels, special folding, or other elements. Creators of these specialized books are sometimes called paper engineers. Because of their special assembly, these books are often more expensive and fragile than other books.

VolvelleThe first mechanical books were developed in the Middle Ages as volvelles.

A volvelle is a paper disc that can revolve on another paper surface(s). A type of slide chart also called a wheel chart, volvelle are used for astronomical charts, animal cycles, calculators, identification keys, games, and other purpose.

According to Cormack and Mazzio (2005), many early astronomy books included paper tools for applying the concepts presented in the books.

Astronomicum Caesareum (1540) by Peter Apian (1495-1552) contains 21 woodcut volvelles to help readers identify planetary positions and alignments along with other astronomical phenomena as well as making calculations.

The image on the right shows a page from this book.

Movable books for children first appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the first were published in England in the 1765 by Robert Sayer. Known as "turn up" or "metamorphoses" books, he used flaps to reveal his stories. Sometimes called harlequinades after the comic character Harlequin, each story taught a moral revealed through a series of paper flaps. With titles like The Falshood of External Appearances, the stories often contained clowns. The publisher Dean & Sons began publishing lift-the-flap books by the article William Grimaldi in the early 1800s.

Pop-up books are a specific types of novelty, movable book. Cut-out illustrations are designed to stand up in three dimensions from the surface of a book when the book is opened or a tab is pulled. The book folds flat again when the page is turned or the tab pushed back into place.

Targeted for upper-class children, the 19th century books were intended to involve users and entertain as well as educate. Ernest Nister and Lothar Meggendorfer produced many of these books.

The pop-up book experienced a surge in popularity in the 1960s and again at the end of the 20th century. David Carter and Robert Sabuda are contemporary authors of pop-up books for children.

Skim a History of Pop-up and Movable Books: 700 Years of Paper Engineering. This Smithsonian Libraries program explores the key developments with lots of examples. It's a hour long so you may wish to scan through the video to hit the highlights of personal interest.

A carousel book is opens in three dimensions to reveal scenes around a circle. The McLoughlin Brothers of New York published many of these beginning in the 1880s. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is an example that contains six, three-dimensional scenes.

A flip or flicker book is a book toy containing a sequence of illustrations designed to give the impression of movement. Popular in the 19th century, the effective was similar to a motion picture.

Book historians sometimes use patents as a primary source to learn about book technology. Explore examples of patents (Trettien).

For lots of examples, explore an online exhibition:

To learn more about moveable books, go The Movable Book Society Resources website.

wingsSome children's moveable books have special features, while others are constructed from particular materials that appeal to children.

Novelty Books for Children

Some books have special features that appeal to young children such as pull-tabs or "touch and feel" elements. These short novelty short books are often around 12 pages long.

Novelty books may contain shape holes or other cut-outs. They may also have life flaps, pull tabs, pop-ups, moving parts, or other mechanical elements.

The image on the left shows Salina Yoon's Wings. Notice the tab on the bottom center of the cover. Readers manipulate tabs and flaps to explore the book.

In some cases tactile components such as felt, flannel, fake fur, or other pieces have been added to the book. For instance fake fur might be used to simulate the feel of an animal.

Novelty books have become increasingly sophisticated. For instance, Salina Yoon incorporates "touch and feel" elements into dozens of books.

The Hole Book (1908) by Peter Newell is a children's book that contains a hole on each page.

The image below shows a page from The Hole Book. Click the image to read the book.

hole book

Big Books

Special editions of some children's books are produced in a very large format. These editions are intended for use by an adult with a group of children. The large format allows all the members of a group to share a large group storytelling experience.

Big Little Books

The Whitman Publishing Company became publishing Big Little Books in 1932. These books were typically 3?″ wide and 4½″ high with 200-400 pages. Each book was around 1.5 inches thick. The books contained full-page illustrations. Books included children's books, novels, and movie-based books.


Board Books

These books are made from heavy cardboard making them more durable than traditional paper. Generally, these books are alternative editions of traditional paper books already being published. They often contain large type and few words.

Shape books are board books with covers and interior board pages that are cut into shapes. They may be shaped into animals, cars, or other shapes.

Cloth and Plastic Books

Books for children are often produced using materials such as cardboard, cloth, or fabric. For very young children, books can be printed on cloth or plastic. These books often have alphabet, counting, or common objects themes.

hornbookCloth books have largely disappeared, but plastic books are still being sold. These books are intended to be moisture-resistant allowing children to work with them without the book being soiled or torn.


A hornbook is a type of children's primer from emerging in the 15th century. The hornbook was used by students when learning to read. The wood, bone, leather, or stone handle kept children from touching the page and getting it dirty.

Invented in 1450, the term refers to a sheet containing reading materials such as the alphabet attached to a frame and protected with a transparent horn or mica.

The child (1661) in the image on the right is holding a hornbook.

A Battledor, To Instruct and Amuse is an example of a book created for use with a hornbook. Read and Be Wise (c. 1810) is another example of a book that can be attached to a hornbook.


To learn more about the hornbook, browse The Hornbook and its Use in America (1916) by George A. Plimpton.

To learn more about movable books, you can read issues of Movable Stationery.


Self-Destructing Book

In 1992, Agrippa was published as a collaboration between an artist, author, and publisher. A work of speculative fiction, the book was a unique combination of an artist's book, poetry, and electronic media. The website contained original artwork, an archive of materials, a poem on floppy disk, and simulation, video, and a bibliography along with other materials. The floppy disk self-destructed upon reading.


Cormack, Bradin & Mazzio, Carla (2005). Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700. Available:

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen (2011). Poetry, Pictures, and Popular Publishing: The Illustrated Gift Book and Victorian Visual Culture, 1855-1875. Ohio University Press. Preview Available:

Lommen, Mathieu (ed.) (2012). The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation. Thames & Hudson.

Morison, Stanley & Jackson, Holbrook (1923). A Brief Survey of Printing: History and Practice. Alfred A. Knopf. Available:

Tanselle, Thomas G. (1995). Printing history and other history. Studies in Bibliography, 48, 269-289.

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