Many of the volumes in the Old Library are substantial monographs or collected works, printed over many pages and bound in leather-covered boards, but some smaller and more ephemeral works survive in its collections too. These include chapbooks.
Chapbooks were usually small paper-covered booklets. Typically they would be printed on a single large sheet of paper, folded to form a booklet of 8, 12, 16, or 24 pages. They first appeared in the sixteenth century, as printing began to become more affordable. At its height during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the format proved ideal for all forms of ephemeral literature: almanacks, poetry, tracts, and children’s literature. These were readily available throughout rural areas, being distributed by travelling salesmen or pedlars, the ‘chapmen’ after whom they were named. Being relatively cheap and easy to produce, in a pocket-sized format that suited small hands, this publication format continued to be used for children’s story-books into the early nineteenth century.
This example from Ross’s Juvenile Library, published in 1814, stands just 11cm tall. It is now bound together with several other chapbooks, but it would have been sold originally in its simple paper cover, for twopence.
In his Prelude (book V), William Wordsworth looks back with nostalgia to the popular tales of his youth:
Oh! Give us once again the wishing cap
Of Fortunatus, and the invisible coat
Of Jack the Giant-killer, Robin Hood,
And Sabra in the forest with St. George!
The child, whose love is here, at least, doth reap
One precious gain, that he forgets himself.
This copy of The history of Jack & the giants was published in the 1790s, a little later than Wordsworth’s youth, but is very much the sort of tale of adventure and fantasy to which he referred.
More of the chapbooks in the collections, together with a range of other children’s literature across the ages, feature in the exhibition Some Earlier Age: Children’s books in the College Library, which is on display in the Library Exhibition Area from 1 October 2015 to 29 January 2016.
This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 30 September 2015 by the Special Collections Librarian.