By Dr Jane Carroll, NCRCL Lecturer
If you’ve been up to visit the children’s literature collection in the University of Roehampton in the past few weeks, you’ll have noticed a new set of old books up on the shelves. This is the Hammersmith and Fulham Early Children’s Books Collection.
This collection, comprising over a thousand early children’s books dating from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, was originally held by Hammersmith and Fulham library. The collection began in 1931-2 with the first 300 books – it then grew by purchase and gift to a total of roughly 1,120 books. Last year, Hammersmith & Fulham libraries approached the University of Roehampton to see if we would be interested in taking it on.
In May 2014 I visited the collection with Julie Mills (Subject Librarian) and Kornelia Cepok (Archivist). With the help of staff from Hammersmith & Fulham library, we picked a few boxes at random to get a sense of what might be there. Once we started unpacking the books we realised that this collection was unusual. While there were lots of well-known texts and good early editions of ‘classics’, there were also plenty of books we’d never even heard of and large numbers of strange non-fiction texts that were unlike anything else in Roehampton’s collections.
For me, it was clear that this collection held enormous potential for teaching and research and we simply had to have it.
In March 2015, 43 boxes containing about a thousand books arrived in Roehampton. We had a grand unpacking day which was a bit like a very dusty Christmas and got about half of the books up on the shelves. Since then staff and library interns have been working to unpack the rest of the collection and the shelves are filling up.
As the collection have not yet been fully catalogued it is difficult to say for sure if there is a particular focus or theme to the collection. There are a large number of non-fiction texts on various subjects but also a good mixture of fiction, poetry and some picturebooks. While most of the books were published in Britain, there are a small number of European texts. The majority of the texts are 19th century but there are a handful of 18th century texts too including Fielding’s The Governess (1789) and H.S’s Anecdotes of Mary, or, the Good Governess (1795). From the early 20th century there some are rare texts by familiar authors such as J.M. Barrie’s Tommy and Grizzle (1900) and Louisa M. Alcott’s Jack and Jill (1907).
For the picturebook enthusiast there are all kinds of lovely things including toybooks, a Robert Sayer flipbook and some glorious cloth-bound editions of Walter Crane’s and Kate Greenaway’s work
Some of the texts come with their own histories. This beautifully coloured edition of The World’s Fair, or, Children’s Prize Book of the Great Exhibition came with a letter from the donor whose grandfather had won a medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851. There’s a gorgeous sense of a personal history woven in with the history of this book.
There are some very unusual items too, including a hand-written book and a book with tablets for learning syllables.
Some of these strange texts and some of the earlier texts (including all the chapbooks and pamphlets) are too fragile to be kept on open shelves so Kornelia has decided to hold them in the archive room. Some others are in sad need of restoration and have to be nursed back to health in the coming months. Happily, the majority are sturdy enough to be on open shelves, and already books from the Hammersmith & Fulham Early Children’s Books Collection are taking their places on shelves beside the Bratton Collection on the 4th floor of the library.
I’m really excited about the possibilities of using the texts as teaching resources, particularly for the Origins & Developments of Children’s Literature module for MA students. I believe the collection will really come into its own as a research collection. For my part, some of the texts – like ALOE’s The Story of a Needle (1858) and Annie Carey’s The Wonders of Common Things (1880) – have already proved useful for my current research project and I’m certain the collection will be useful to other NCRCL staff and students too. Many of the texts here have simply never been studied and even the ones that don’t merit a full critical examination on their own will certainly add breadth and context to studies of major texts. There is enormous potential here for essays and dissertations and all kinds of papers. While the collection is undoubtedly of interest to scholars of children’s literature, it will also appeal to those interested in early education, material culture, Victorian studies, and the history of the book.
The next time you’re passing the university library, stop by to have a look. You never know what you might discover!
You can also find out more information about the collection, archives, and courses available through NCRCL at the upcoming NCRCL Open Day and Virtual Open Day 2015.