There’s a Cow in the Library by Gill Partington

Gill Partington

There’s a Cow in the Library


Around a table in Cambridge sit twelve people, each absorbed in a book. There’s an atmosphere of intense concentration, but they’re not reading. Or not exactly. They’re pulling tabs and string, turning dials, lifting flaps and manipulating all kinds of other bits and pieces. It’s all part of a London Rare Books School course on ‘movable books’, the heading under which these items are catalogued as part of Cambridge University Library’s special collections. The category is a peculiar one: all books are movable to an extent, after all, involving fingers and thumbs in the turning of pages. But there’s definitely something different about these books, which are a special set of misfits. None of them looks or behaves quite like a conventional book. There’s Lothar Meggendorfer’s Always Jolly!, a pull-the-tab book from 1890 in which an angler bends back and forth, forever struggling to land a giant fish; there’s a ‘rocking chair book’ from the same year, the curved shape of which means you can put it on a table and set it rocking back and forth; and there’s a book in the form of a fold-up cardboard doll’s cot, published by Dean & Son in 1895, complete with a sleeping inhabitant made from paper. Strangest of all is The Speaking Picture Book (1893), containing a series of verses about farm animals, which periodically interrupts the atmosphere of quiet absorption in the library with bleats and moos, all produced at the pull of a string. Opening it up reveals the machinery inside – a century-old set of wires, whistles and cardboard bellows.

We might associate this kind of interactivity with children’s books, and indeed that’s what most of these are. They date from the late Victorian period, when the toy book, or ‘mechanical’ book, emerged as a new kind of object and publishers sought to exploit a potentially lucrative market

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