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Most people have pop-up books in their personal library – or more likely on their kids’ bookshelves – but a fascinating Smithsonian exhibit puts the practice of “paper engineering” into its proper historical and technological context. The first such book ever made was a reference work of church holidays made by a monk in 1250; somewhat amazingly, it took another half-millennium, until 1765, before the first one was made for children, the demographic that is now the books’ primary market. The exhibit is as current as David Carter’s phantasmagorical 2004 volume One Red Dot, showcasing books that range from the serious (anatomical and geometry texts), the classic (Cinderella) and the futuristic (airplane designs) to the fantastical (“Mega Beasts”), the campy (1980s robot trifles) and the inspired (phobias, featuring a drill-wielding dentist coming right at you). Skip lightly over the taxonomy, which draws arcane distinctions between more than a dozen varieties of paper-engineered books, and pay attention instead to the video of the painstaking, 18-month process required to make one, which ends with one-by-one hand-assembly in an Asian factory. Selected stop-motion footage makes the otherwise static volumes behind the glass leap to life. Of special note is a children’s haggadah featuring art by Erwin Singer, initially published in Yiddish in Germany in 1933 – a sobering mix of childlike wonder and adult foreboding.

Through October 2011 at the Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition Gallery at the National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. (202) 633-1000. Daily 10:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.