Newman Tower Exhibits: Forms of the Book

A cuneiform tablet from 2500 B.C.E. made from clay fired in a kiln. This small tablet is a receipt for a barley purchase.

What makes a book a book? Does it have to have lines of text that you read from left to right or right to left? Does it have to be bound with pages and a cover? How does the form of the text influence the way you read it? These are questions that we hope to raise with our “Forms of the Book” exhibit in the new Newman Tower of Collections and Exploration, which features texts in a variety of forms that date from 2500 B.C.E. to the early 2000s A.D.


Non-traditional forms of the book encourage discussion of the nature of the book itself, the relationship of text and image, and the ways in which design contributes to reading and understanding. In our display in the Newman Tower, we have included early examples of texts written on cuneiform, papyrus, and scrolls, before pages were folded and bound into the codex form contemporary readers recognize as books. You can read more about our papyrus collection in our previous blog post about the collection and our post about Classics graduate student and papyrologist Phillip Caprara. A larger selection of our papyri pieces are also currently on display in the Special Collections Reading Room.

Chōjū giga, 12th Century. This early Japanese scroll depicts rabbits, monkeys and frogs engaging in human activities in a humorous narrative.

Early bound books in this display emphasize visual communications and the history of typography, design, and printmaking. The Book of Hours (1400), for example, displays beautiful hand-drawn and colored illustrations.

A page from The Book of Hours (1400). From the Washington University Libraries’ George Meissner Collection.


Also on display are modern-day artists’ books, which often feature unusual structures or thought-provoking design elements that play with the form of the book to engage readers in new and exciting ways. For more images of some of the unique artist books in our collections, please see our previous blog post on contemporary female book artists.

Julie Chen’s Bon bon mots, 1998. Chen plays with form in these bite-sized books, designed with a box to look like candies. Currently on display in the Newman Tower.

World Without End. Designed by Julie Chen, 1999. Currently on display in the Newman Tower.

This is only a sampling of the pieces that are on display in Olin Library’s Newman Tower of Collections and Exploration, so please stop by and enjoy these unique works in person!

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.