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

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