The Hidden Treasures within The Museum of Childhood

Eliza Cottington

Following on from Fiona’s piece on her brilliant work at The Signet Library, I wanted to delve into the Museum world that I have found myself in as part of the work placement module on the MSc in Book History. I have had the privilege of exploring the genre of children’s literature at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. This wonderful Museum has a vast, eclectic collection which encompasses a bookstore containing 15 to 20,000 books. Due to the financial constraints of a local authority museum however, and the magnitude of the task to accession all of the Museum’s books, they are a source of untapped treasures.

I have had the delight of working specifically with the Museum’s special collection of books. I was given free reign by the Museum’s curator, Lyn Stevens, to dive into the unaccessioned boxes and choose which were of interest to me and thus what I would like to work on. It quickly became apparent that there would be many that held captivating stories of publishers, binders and the children who had owned them.

Most of the books I have accessioned so far have dated between 1790 and 1850 and were donated to the Museum in the first couple of decades of it opening (1955-1975). The Museum’s founder Patrick Murray had his own unique style of accessioning the objects and often left books out of the register completely. This has caused issues for the current staff who have inherited his bizarre numbering system and who have the task of unpicking items that were not recorded or multiple objects that were lumped together under one accession number. Most of the books however, are unaccessioned, which has given me the chance to learn the precise workings of the Museum’s collections information system EMu. This opportunity has enabled me to research in detail the books I am working with to create a full record that hopefully, in the future, will be accessible to the public.

A Series of Prints of English History. Printed and Sold by John Marshall. Date unknown.

One of the trends that has become visible is how we continue to give books as gifts. There were multiple inscriptions in the books to relatives and friends. But it was also exciting to see how children interacted with their books. Some used them to practice their signatures whilst others followed the spelling rules and had a go at the teachings. Many books from this period were didactic and were for educational instruction, a sharp contrast to the beautifully illustrated children’s books of today. The special collection reflects the beginning of the market for children’s literature; many publishers who helped push it forward as a legitimate literary form are present in the collection, including John Marshall and Newberry & Harris (the later form of John Newberry’s publishing firm).

Inscription: Miss Bridget Robertson from Uncle Frank 30th Dec 1828

Uncovering who had owned some of the books has also been enthralling. One exciting find was the name William Kirk Dickson. When this inscription was written he was nine years old but he was to go onto become the librarian at The Faculty of Advocates and then the first head librarian at the National Library of Scotland from 1925 to 1931. Whilst working at the Advocates library he helped establish the NLS and advocate for its current location on George IV Bridge.

My work placement has been a brilliant opportunity to gain an understanding of the inner workings of a museum and the process of accessioning. I have been able to take the time to study books I would otherwise never have seen. The Museum’s book collection is an exciting source of the history of British childhood and for the material study of the book. I hope more people will see the value in this collection so it can assist researchers in the future.


Report by Eliza Cottington, current MSc student, Book History and Material Culture

The Enlightening Signet Library

Fiona Mossman

As part of the MSc Book History and Material Culture, students can choose to undertake a work placement with an archive or library. This not only allows those of us on the course to gain hands-on experience, but deepens the ties between the institutes in question and the Centre for the History of the Book. I have been fortunate to be placed at the Signet Library, a library of undeniable architectural attraction but also home to some fascinating collections. My little empire within this library is the English History and Topography section, underneath the cupola in the Upper Library. For three months I get to dive into this ‘bibliographic terra incognita’, cataloguing and researching the books in this area, and putting what I find on the map, so to speak, of the online catalogue.

The Upper Library

The librarian of the Signet Library, James Hamilton, has been exceptionally welcoming and helpful. My brief upon arrival was to spend several hours poking around undisturbed in the shelves, getting a feel for what the collection holds, before picking out whatever caught my fancy to work on. This section, the product of the Enlightenment ethos that broadened the lawyer’s scope to all disciplines, is unusual in the Signet Library’s holdings both for its focus outwith Scotland and in the many forgotten survivors of the sales of 1959-1998, which had significantly reduced the library’s collections; as such, this is a welcome holdout that is only now being explored in earnest. Featuring history, topography, and antiquities, it is a treasure-trove of early archaeology, history, and travel writing, along with fine engraving, many different bindings, stories of provenance and much more.

One of my first challenges was cataloguing a nineteenth-century volume entitled ‘A Sketcher’s Notes’, written anonymously by Mary Webster as accompaniments to her drawings, signed ‘M.W.’ and well represented within the volume. I was able to bring two volumes of her work together, having been separated upon arrival at the Signet Library in 1914, and to credit her authorship for the first time in the case of the second volume. While the authorship of the first volume was attested in other libraries’ catalogue records, and was known by the librarian who processed them upon arrival, this information had since been lost and I was very pleased to contribute both to the accessibility of these books and new information about women’s authorship.

Mary Webster’s books reunited for the first time since 1914

The collection is very varied, and I have catalogued both a French translation of David Hume’s History of England belonging to Madame de la Bord, who I spent a while tracking down before identifying her as a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, and a twentieth-century privately published collection of photographs from ‘A trip to Iceland’. The earliest publications that I have come across date from the seventeenth century, while a 1779 book on Northumberland appears in the 1782 library catalogue, making it one of the very earliest non-legal works in the library as whole; but there are many more modern works, including, somewhat egregiously, a copy of Mein Kampf, sandwiched between two early printed books and a biography of Oliver Cromwell.

Preserving bindings with Cellugel (Madame de la Borde’s Hume is the sumptuous red book)

As part of this placement, I will also be curating a display at the upcoming exhibition ‘The Great Affair is to Move’. I look forward to getting stuck into preparations for this very soon, although it will, of course, involve having to pick and choose among my favourites!

The outcome of the cataloguing project—started by me but likely to engage further book history students in years to come—is to allow the material in this collection to be findable via the library’s online catalogue, as well as to enhance understanding of the many fascinating and diverse books held in the collection. I have certainly been learning a lot, and I hope that this has given a flavour of one of the work placements of the current master’s students.

Fiona Mossman and Signet Librarian, James Hamilton


Report by Fiona Mossman, current MSc student, Book History and Material Culture