Opening Up the Archives – The Museum of Childhood Book Collection

On the 15th of February the Centre for the History of the Book welcomed Lyn Stevens, curator at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, to talk about the museum’s nationally-recognised collection of children’s books. The collection encompasses over 15,000 items, ranging from a Latin grammar book from 1579 to a book about Hammy the Wonder Hamster from 2006. Not only does the museum actively collect contemporary children’s literature, but its staff are also still uncovering treasures from the donations they’ve already acquired.

A selection of books brought by Lyn Stevens from the Museum of Childhood’s book store

The museum began in 1955 when Edinburgh City Council member Patrick Murray suggested a space dedicated exclusively to children and the history of childhood. Books were a part of the museum’s collections from day one, when the Museum of Childhood existed under the umbrella of all city museums and libraries in Edinburgh. Later, when the museums separated from the libraries, the books stored in the public library that belonged to the museum’s collection were packed and moved to a book store in City Chambers. Due to the hurried nature of the move, the contents of each crate were not well documented and many of the books remain uncatalogued.

When Lyn came to the Museum of Childhood in 2012, she began the rather daunting task of sorting through the store. The University of Edinburgh’s SELCIE (Scotland’s Early Literature for Children Initiative) team approached her and together they began unpacking the books, crate by crate.

They found a number of items that might surprise a person expecting to see light-hearted children’s stories. There are examples of clear propaganda, such as the World War I-era Nursery Rhymes for Fighting Times featuring a marching goose dressed in a German uniform, or the World War II reworking of the naughty character Struwwelpeter into a book about Hitler the Truffle Eater. There are books with intolerant depictions of races and nationalities, as is the case for an 1899 edition of The Story of Little Black Sambo in which a seemingly harmless narrative is illustrated by a caricature of a young Black child that would certainly face scrutiny under today’s social standards. All of these books are an important reflection of the society from which they come, and they indicate some of the powerful messages to be found in children’s literature through the ages.

As the group continued going through the crates in the museum’s book store, they decided to create a temporary exhibition in order to share with everyone else what has been locked away in the basement of City Chambers. Five PhD students – in addition to curator Lyn Stevens, University of Edinburgh Lecturer Sarah Dunnigan, and University of Strathclyde Fellow Valentina Bold – settled on themes and started selecting items to be featured in the Museum of Childhood’s Growing Up with Books exhibit.

Lasting only eight months, the exhibit had over 100,000 visitors. On display were “Worlds of Knowledge,” featuring some of the earliest educational books with elaborate illustrations – not always accurate – that would have been a big investment and were used again and again by many children.

As the technology for producing books became more widespread and made books more accessible, adults became concerned with what their children were reading. “Shaping Identities” included books that adults chose for their children to read, which may or may not have been what the children themselves would have wanted. These books introduced to children the ‘proper’ social behaviours, which tended to revolve around traditional gender roles and obedient behaviour.

Under the heading “Learning to Read” were alphabet books, many from the late-Victorian era, that began with pictures featuring the letters of the alphabet, moved onto nursery rhymes, and finished with longer stories. The different sections reflect the progress of the child’s reading skills, allowing the one book to remain engaging for more than one stage in the child’s life.

One of the biggest genres reflected in the museum’s collection are fairy tales and fables. These “Worlds of Imagination” include stories collected by the Grimm brothers and tales created by Hans C. Andersen. The fairy tales, the fables, the didactic tales, the educational books, and all the items in the museum’s book store are valued for more than just their texts; the books retain evidence of children’s lives. It could be the 12-year-old Ebenezer Oliphant practising his signature over and over again on the pastedowns of his Latin book, or the early nineteenth-century books hand made by a mother for her daughter that contain their own family’s collection of stories.

The Museum of Childhood’s book collection continues to grow, and its curator continues to work on improving access to it. Currently, students and volunteers go through the books and help improve the museum’s catalogue, all the while uncovering more than enough material for future exhibits.


Report by Kathryn Downing, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

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