Is Smaller Better? (When talking about textbooks)

Posted on
January 5, 2017

The University of Leiden in the Netherlands, founded in 1575, is the country’s oldest; it is also now one of the study abroad opportunities offered to William & Mary students. In the first three quarters of a century annual enrollments showed a four-fold rise, with the result being that the Elsevier family in Leiden, who already operated a printing press, decided to get into the early modern equivalent of the text-book industry. To that end, they began in the early seventeenth century to publish small editions of important texts, used by scholars and students, which would be cheaper, in part because their small format and small type required less paper.

C. Cornelius Tacitus, Leiden, 1634, Rare Book 871 T2 1634
C. Cornelius Tacitus, Leiden, 1634, Rare Book 871 T2 1634

This edition of Tacitus, published in Leiden in 1634, was such a work. In the previous century the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius had similarly decided that smaller was better when it came to popular books. Exactly one hundred years before the Elsevier Tacitus held by Swem Special Collections was printed, he had published a version of Tacitus which, though smaller than the large folios of the day, was still much bigger than this little Elsevier, which is only 3 by 4.75 inches, not much bigger than a coffee cup. With small pages and even smaller type the Elseviers were a hit, particularly with students, who, like their modern counterparts, didn’t want to carry lots of heavy books around. Furthermore, before the coming of wood pulp paper, when it was still made from old rags, paper was one of the most expensive elements of book production. Therefore, any printer who could use less paper would produce a cheaper book. The students in Leiden in 1634 might have been even more grateful for e-books, although they probably would have been a bit confused initially. In the meantime they had little volumes like this, and the Elseviers also printed other small editions of classical texts, including one from their office in Amsterdam, which is also in Swem’s Special Collection (Rare Books PA6705 .A2 1665).


C. Cornelius Tacitus, Leiden, 1634, Rare Book 871 T2 1634

Tacitus continues to be read by students today, although most of us are probably not up to reading him in Latin and would prefer a translation. Along with the fact that very few of us read or speak Latin, the four hundred years since the Elseviers have seen some considerable changes in technology. Despite those shifts, there probably hasn’t been much of a change in the attitude of students to heavy and, of their parents, to expensive textbooks.

For more information on the printing business run by generations of Elseviers see David W. Davies, The World of the Elseviers, 1580-1712, The Hague, 1954.


Written by Phillip Emanuel, Graduate Student Apprentice