William Hunter’s Library: the Shapes of Books

Blog post by Jasna Zwimpfer, Project Assistant, William Hunter’s Library: A Transcription of the Early Catalogues

From small to large – the formats of books in William Hunter’s library

In the past few months, the project team has been busy transcribing Museum Records 3 (MR 3) and matching the books listed in it with the catalogue of the Glasgow University Library. We consulted some of Hunter’s books in Special Collections to answer queries which emerged during our work. In the search room, we came into direct contact with all kinds of shapes and sizes of books, and it was exciting to discover the variety of formats contained within Hunter’s collection. Although the library’s online catalogue provides a short physical description of each book, the actual appearance would always be a surprise. In this blog post, we will be looking at the variety of formats of Hunter’s printed books, and uncover the technical terms, which are commonly used to describe the books’ formats. 

Image 1
Thin and thick, small and large: Sp Coll Hunterian Ab. 8.17 and Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.5.15


In Hunter’s time, standardised paper sizes did not yet exist: the international A series was only developed in the beginning of the 20th century. In the 18th century, a different set of technical terms was used. These are still widely used in book cataloguing today. The books in Hunter’s Trustees’ catalogue (MR 3) are categorised according to their formats: ‘folio’, ‘quarto’, ‘quarto Pamphlets’, ‘octavo & Infra’, and ‘octavo pamphlets’. These follow the scheme used by Hunter in the catalogues he kept (MR 1 and MR 2). Similarly, the library catalogue provides each rare book with the physical description of either ‘folio’, ‘4to’, ‘8vo’ or ‘12mo’. But what do these terms mean? What do they say about the actual size of a book?

At first, the expressions may seem confusing, but their underlying principle is fairly straightforward. Unlike the modern system, the old terms describe the size of a book in relation to the number of folds, which transforms the original printed sheets into a body of book pages. For this, an even number of pages is printed on both sides of a large sheet. Terms such as ‘quarto’ and ‘octavo’ designate how many times this printed sheet is then folded to produce the individual pages of the book.

Image 2

Examples of a duodecimo (12mo), octavo (8vo pamphlet), quarto (4to) and folio (bound in parchment) in Hunter’s collection: Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.8.17; Sp Coll Hunterian Ek.3.7; Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.15; Sp Coll Hunterian P.3.19

Image 3

Examples of a duodecimo (12mo), octavo (8vo pamphlet), quarto (4to) and folio (bound in parchment) in Hunter’s collectionSp Coll Hunterian Ab.8.17; Sp Coll Hunterian Ek.3.7; Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.15; Sp Coll Hunterian P.3.19

To create a folio, which is the largest format, the sheet is folded once. This process results in two leaves and four pages. Likewise, a quarto consists of two folds, four leaves and eight pages. The concept can be extended to octavo and duodecimo, while the number of pages steadily increases and the size of the individual pages tend to become smaller. The four books of the images above are examples of a duodecimo, octavo, quarto and folio. While the duodecimo is only 16 cm high, the folio is double in size with a height of 32 cm.

Image 4

An illustration of the three largest book formats. Source: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/47089/47089-h/47089-h.htm

After the sheets have been folded and bound together in the correct order, the page edges are cut so that the book can open. If the book remains uncut, the reader cannot read the individual book pages, but only the leaves. Interestingly, Hunter’s library contains a few uncut books, and this gives us insights into which books have been read by neither him nor other people.

Since the size of the original sheet may vary, and the edges of the leaves have been cut, the individual sizes of books may differ. Therefore, the terms indicate only the approximate book sizes. For example, two books might be identical in format, but dissimilar in size. In order to describe the format more precisely, it is possible to use more exact terms, such as ‘elephant folio’ for a specific folio type.

Image 5.png

Le cabinet des beaux arts (1690) is a rare example of a book in landscape format (Sp Coll Hunterian H.2.19)

Hunter’s approximately 10,000 books differ not only in size, but also in the materials used to create them. By the 18th century, books appeared in both hard and soft covers. Commonly, soft cover publications are called pamphlets or booklets, and are bound in paper. They tend to occur in octavo or smaller sizes, and a number of pamphlets are often bound together. Hunter collated his pamphlets to form a collection of either topically related or miscellaneous contents. Due to their distinctive nature, the Hunter’s Trustees noted the pamphlets as having specific formats when creating their catalogues. In contrast to the paper booklets, the majority of books in Hunter’s collection are bound in more sturdy and expensive materials, such as parchment and other kinds of leather.

Image 6.png

Fifteen medical pamphlets published in Edinburgh between 1760 and 1773 (Sp Coll Hunterian Ek.3.7)


‘Book sizes’, [no date], http://www.trussel.com/books/booksize.htm

‘Guide to Book Formats’, 2017, https://www.abebooks.co.uk/books/rarebooks/collecting-guide/understanding-rare-books/guide-book-formats.shtml

Johnston, Edward, ‘Writing & Illuminating & Lettering’, Project Gutenberg, 2014, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/47089/47089-h/47089-h.htm

Kinross, Robin, ‘A4 and before. Towards a long history of paper sizes.’ KB Lecture, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Wassenaar, 2009

Robinson, Pamela, ‘The Format of Books – Books, Booklets and Rolls.’ The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, edited by Nigel J. Morgan and Rodney M. Thomson, vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008, pp. 39–54. The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521782180.005

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3 replies


  1. A very good explanation of book formats! – jamesgray2

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