Xylotheque: A Library Full of Books With Leaves, But No Pages

I recently discovered via a tweet from Ware-Pak (thank you Keith Shay!) a marvelous kind of book that gladdened my maker heart. While normal books are made up of leaves–sheets of paper–with a page front and back on each leaf, these books have leaves but no pages! They are found in a Xylothek (German), or Xylotheque (French). Xylotheques are libraries of wood samples, as bibliotheques are libraries of books. In some xylotheques the samples are just slabs of woods, but in others the samples are fashioned into fantastic book-like objects made out of the sample wood—including bark—with compartments housing botanical samples of the source tree: seeds, nuts, twigs, flowers, fruit, and, of course, leaves. But no pages.

Book-like samples from

Book-like wood samples from Xylothek Schildbach.

A sample book from the Xylothek Schildbach, Kassel, Germany.

A sample book from the Berleburger Xylothek.

Among the most famous of these collections is the Xylothek Schildbach in Kassel, Germany, assembled between 1771 and 1799. Others from this period exist in France, Austria, Sweden, and Czechslovakia. Kew Gardens in the U.K. has a beautiful xylotheque created in Meiji Japan—not in book form, apparently—with paintings rather than botanical samples.

Xylotheques Inspire Artists

While the original xylotheques were created for scientific and novelty purposes in the great age of exploration and collecting, they have an obvious aesthetic quality as predecessors of assemblage art such as the work of Joseph Cornell. A number of artists have been inspired to create modern versions of the xylotheque. Here’s a video about one such project (in German).

More for Wood Nuts

At least one xylotheque was created in encyclopedic form.  A fellow named Romeyn Beck Hough worked from 1888 to 1913 to create American Woods in fourteen volumes, which had actual slices of wood on the pages. Taschen has reproduced the pages in a facsimile edition called Woodbook. Being a wood nut myself, I grabbed a copy I found at Half Price Books (of the facsimile—the full original goes for $35,000+), which I later gave to a young friend who is in the wood business. Finally, for those of you who think way too much about wood, check out Wood Porn (SFW), a quirky website from a specialist sawmill in Pennsylvania with amazing images.

Note: The source pages for most of these images were in German. Hopefully I’ve credited them properly.

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Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook, and distribution services for book publishers since 1982.