Book Sizes (vs. Book "Formats")

        How big is your book?  Know before you request it for research in Special Collections because a book's size will determine how big your foam cradle must be, whether you will need "book snakes" and how many you will need, and whether you will need help operating the book.  Bibliographers always measure books by the height of their pages (inside the binding) measured vertically first, then horizontally, usually in centimeters.  Some American bibliographers, libraries, and numerous online book-sellers measure their books in inches, but that is generally a far less precise measurement.  Millimeter differences of page height can reveal important evidence about which edition among similar editions you are holding, and about the book's past encounters with binders, who always cut down pages sizes when repairing frayed and cracked page edges for rebinding.  Books only grow shorter with age, never longer.

        If you are used to working in inches, you can convert millimeter or centimeter measurements quickly with this formula: 254 mm. = 1 inch; 2.54 cm. = 1 inch.  For a general rule of thumb when selecting book cradles before a book is delivered to you in Special Collections, look up your book in the Library's online catalog.  For example, in this catalog entry, the page height has been bold-faced in red to help you find it:

Author Chaucer, Geoffrey, d. 1400
Title The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer : compared with the former editions, and many valuable mss. out of which, three tales are added which were never before printed / by John Urry, student of Christ-Church, Oxon. deceased; together with a glossary by a student of the same College. To the whole is prefixed the author's life, newly written, and a preface, giving an account of this edition
Publication Info. London: Printed for Bernard Linot, 1721
 Special Collections Oversize Flat  PR1850 1721    LIB USE ONLY
Description 48 p., [1]-626 p., 1 ℓ., 3-81 [1] p., 1 ℓ. : ill. ; 39 cm

The "Urry Chaucer" is a right Tartar to handle, over fifteen inches tall, and at over 650 pages, that makes a huge and heavy volume even when slightly cut down, as this copy has been.  This will require one of our largest foam cradles and probably help from the Curator or her assistant to position the book for use.  Nevertheless, its large and heavy pages will tend to lie flat for examination without much need for book snakes once you are past the front matter or before the end pages.

By contrast, compare this item:

Author Student of Oxford
Title Woman in miniature : a satire / by a student of Oxford.
Publication Info. London: Printed for J. Huggonson in Sword-and-Buckler-Court, over-against the Crown Tavern on Ludgate-hill., 1742.
 Special Collections  PR3291 .W6 1742    LIB USE ONLY
Description 32 p. ; 20 cm. (8vo)

The title is nearly a visual pun.  At a little over 7 3/4 inches tall, and only 32 pages, it will resemble typical modern paperbacks, though it is so thin as to nearly qualify as a "pamphlet."  Its pages, by contrast, probably will require book snakes to hold them down for inspection, but do not attempt to flatten the pages or pry into the binding if it's tight.

         For a book half that size, consider the complete works of Virgil in a nearly miniature edition:

Call # 343388
Author Virgil.
Unifrm title Works. 1655
Title P. Virgilius Maro. iam emendatior.
Imprint Amstelodami, : Apud Ioannem Ianssonium., 1655.
 Rare Books  343388  PAGE RARE BKS
Description 336 p. ; 11 cm. (8vo)

This book can be held in the palm of one's hand, or carried in one's pocket, under a belt, or tucked into a court robe's large sleeve, which was the whole point for its original readers.  For modern scholars, operating a book 4 1/3 inches tall requires nice fine-motor skills, careful use of foam cradles and book snakes, and patience, as always, when asking questions of an artifact that is over 400 years old.  (This catalog entry for the Huntington Library [California] is supplied because this rare edition is not in the Goucher Library collection, but a privately owned copy can be borrowed for research from the English 241 book truck in the Conservation Lab by prior appointment with its owner and the Curator of Special Collections and Archives or her assistant.)

        Book "format" often is confused with book size in casual usage and by libraries or collectors who use it to distinguish "big" from "small" books.  Bibliographers use the term only to describe how the book was laid out on the press for printing.  In the entry for the Virgil above, the "(8vo)" following the 11 cm. height indicates that the book was set up on the press in "octavo" format.  This means that eight pages of type were set to be printed on each side of one large sheet of paper, which was then turned over to be printed with the corresponding eight verso pages in the next printing pass.  Other formats are broadsheet or "1o," set up with one page side per sheet, folio or "2o," (the Urry Chaucer above) set up with a two-page spread per side of the sheet, quarto or "4o," set up with four pages per side of the sheet, and on through duodecimo (12), sextodecimo (16), "32mo" (32 pages per side), and even "64mo" (64 pages per side, likely a miniature edition).  Formats other than broadsheets had to be folded and cut by binders to create the "gatherings" of consecutive pages that were bound together to make the completed book.  For more on identifying book format from "chainlines" and watermarks you can see by shining light through hand-made paper, see this online guide from the Japanese Diet Library.