Day 7 Visit to the Children’s Collection, State Library of Victoria

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Juliet O’Conor manages the Children’s Collection at the State Library of Victoria. She is a Research Librarian and an author of the famed ‘Bottersnikes and other lost things: a celebration of Australian children’s books’.

The collection has children’s books published between the 16th and 21st century, reflecting patterns of childhood reading over five hundred years.

The collection is divided into three areas: Rare Books, the Ken Pound Collection (about 25,000 books donated by Ken Pound), and the Children’s Literature Research Collection (which has about 70,000 books).

The earliest children’s book in the collection is The Scholemaster by Roger Ascham, written by the tutor of a young Queen Elizabeth I, and we got to look at it and turn the pages!

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The text is inaccessible, an ‘s’ looks like an ‘f’ and ‘u’ looks like ‘v’. It was quite hard to read. However, the quality of paper and beautiful font was wonderful to look at. Juliet explained how the upper classes had beautiful leather bound books with embossed golf family crests on them and the lower classes had much more simpler versions. These were priced accordingly.

We also had a look at the Horn Books. Wow! These were fascinating. Hornbooks were used in the 17th Century to teach children how to read. They were small, thin pieces of wood with a handle. On a piece of vellum or paper were printed letters of the alphabet, and maybe a syllabus and vowels. Usually, the Lords Prayer was on it too, as so often in these times education was part of religion. Then the piece of paper was covered by a thin layer of transparent horn to protect it. Like plastic. Cool, eh!

Depending on class some Hornbooks were embossed and engraved.

Check this one out…

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Ken Pound is an interesting character. He fascinated Heather! His collection was a privately amassed, put together by himself through buying books at markets and fairs from 1970 to 1994. The collection is solely Australian and New Zealand books, and Ken purely collected what he liked. His collection has certain books that are rarely found anywhere else in Australia. These include these funny little advertising booklets, which humorously reflect aspects of social history. Some were illustrated by the wonderful Ida Rentoul Oustwaithe. My favourite illustration was of two children playing cards with two quite adult looking Koala’s who were smoking and having a drink!

Others treasures in Ken’s collection are several editions of ‘Dot and the Kangaroo’ and ‘John Mystery Books’ which were published from the 1930’s – 1950. Growing up in an orphanage, we found Ken’s collection touching. He just loved books! His one requirement when he parted with his collection was that they remain ‘together’; quite a legacy we thought.  

We also got to look at two more very special and rare books. We looked at an Earnest Lister pop-up book from the 1890’s. The artwork was beautiful, and the diorama had been delicately hand-cut. They called it paper engineering.

At this time (1890’s) pop-up books or lift the flap books were also popular for teaching surgery. Scary!

My absolute favourite was a Beatrix Potter book from 1906. It was a concertina book of ‘Miss Moppet’. It was tiny, in a wallet format and it was absolutely divine. I believe it wasn’t so popular though. Apparently, children would read them and leave them lying around ‘undone’. Doesn’t sound too dissimilar to today, I’d say. Although I do admit, it was rather difficult to fold back up. I’m not good with maps either.

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The Children’s Collection also currently holds a wide collection of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, some of which are on display in the Cowen Gallery. Juliet says: “The Alice books marked a shift away from didacticism to imaginative irreverence in children’s fiction, and continue to inspire literal, radical and subversive interpretation.”

There’s no doubt about that, and looking at these books was an absolute treat. I always feel a connection with Lewis Carol. The poor guy suffered terrible from terrible migraine headaches (I do too) and prior to a migraine, he would get an ‘aura migraine’ (visual eye disturbances) for two to three days before the actual painful headache started. Apparently, during one of his aura migraines, he wrote ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ So, there’s an opportunity I’m obviously not making the most of!

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The Children’s Collection at the State Library shows the expansion over time from the didactic beginnings of children’s literature to works for children’s entertainment such as novels, illustrated fiction, picture books, graphic novels, poetry and traditional stories.

The collection grows by approximately 2500 books – antiquarian and contemporary – each year and it’s a place well worth the visit.

Thank you Juliet – what a wonderful way to spend the morning.

And thank you to Trevor McAllister, our very knowledgeable guide.

This is Juliet’s book which I’m going to buy this weekend.

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Juliet O’Conor

$59.95
The Miegunyah Press in association with the State Library of Victoria
Hardback 272pp Illustrated ISBN 9780522856514

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