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Choki Lhamo (age 14) from Trongsa with "Bhutan," the world's largest published book.

Choki Lhamo, age 14, from Trongsa with Bhutan, the world's largest published book.

A book no backpack could hold

University Libraries acquires largest book ever printed in the world

By Christopher James

Published on May 10, 2005; updated July 3, 2006

Students may grouse about lugging big books to and from class, but the University Libraries' newest acquisition puts them to shame.

That acquisition is Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, and it's the largest book ever created, according to Guinness World Records. The tome weighs in at more than 130 pounds, and each of its 112 pages measures five feet wide by seven feet high. An anonymous donor recently gave an edition of the book--of which fewer than 25 exist--to the University Libraries.

Bhutan's creator, technology pioneer Michael Hawley, unveiled the book and discussed its creation on May 12 in Willey Hall Auditorium on the West Bank of the University's Twin Cities campus. Hawley is director of special projects and a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The book is a photographic tour of the kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny country nestled in the Himalayas northeast of India. Roughly the size of Switzerland but with an official population of 600,000, Bhutan has been called "the last Shangri-la" because of its rich ecology and unspoiled culture. As a way to preserve Bhutan's national identity, the Bhutanese government restricts tourism; only about 5,000 tourists visit each year.

Hawley, a photographer and former digital engineer at Lucasfilm, Ltd., developed the book because he wanted to share the beauty of Bhutan with a wide audience. "We thought we could allow readers to...step into this beautiful corner of the world--one which so few people will be blessed to visit," Hawley says.

He created Bhutan in 2003 after four expeditions where, along with students and photographers from MIT and from Bhutan, he captured more than 40,000 stunning color photographs of the people, architecture, dance festivals, native costumes, and daily life of the country.

But Bhutan is more than pretty pictures. Hawley also conceived the book as a way to advance the field of digital photography. He had led several research expeditions to Bhutan and wanted to innovate better photographic techniques on field expeditions. Over the past decade, digital photography techniques have progressed rapidly. Even so, field researchers often don't have advanced equipment and can't capture accurate photographic records of their trips. Hawley wanted to change that, so he equipped his team with state-of-the-art digital and film photography equipment.

"Every field team, from MIT geologists to the local boy scout troop, feels an obligation to collect and share the best possible record of their work," says Hawley. "But photography can be a real annoyance on expeditions."

But that wasn't the end of the story. Transforming the images into a printed book involved its own challenges. With the help of experts from companies like Apple, HP, and Kodak, Hawley and his team engineered an entirely new production and printing process for the book. Each photographic image in the book is more than two gigabytes in size, stretching the limits of traditional digital printing techniques. And each edition of Bhutan requires 24 hours of printing time, a roll of paper longer than a football field, and more than a gallon of ink. The book is available for sale--up to a limited edition of 500 copies--but not in a traditional sense. Patrons who make a contribution of $15,000 or more to Friendly Planet, Inc., a nonprofit educational charity that Hawley founded, receive a copy. Contributions to Friendly Planet benefit the Ministry of Education in Bhutan, providing much-needed resources for the kingdom's schools.

The University's copy is currently on permanent display to the public in the University's Elmer L. Andersen Library, also on the West Bank.

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