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Paging through generations of children’s literature one book at a time

January 18, 2012

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The sight of 7,000 vintage children’s books stowed in a basement room of Leatherby Libraries is overwhelming enough on its own. Old books fill the shelves and line the tops of every workspace. Stacked towers sit atop tables and desks. Combined, the collection represents the treasured childhood reading traditions of generations of American schoolchildren from the late 1800s up to the 1960s.

But imagine that your job is to sort through that prodigious collection and prepare it for cataloging by university librarians, and overwhelming takes on a whole new meaning. That’s the situation that faced Essraa Nawar, assistant to the dean for communications and external relations, who last summer began organizing the new acquisition, called The Brennan Collection.

“They were just out of boxes. I thought what exactly should I do?” Nawar says.

What she did was plunge in. She gathered the series sets together and separated the single titles. She carried books around the basement room until some order was achieved. She tagged them with title and author slips to create a preliminary inventory of the collection and entered all the information into an Excel spreadsheet.

The task continues, but the collection will soon be ready for university librarians to begin its formal cataloging. The collection, purchased in one lot from collectors Michael and Nancy Brennan with a $7,500 donation from Gloria Bradeson and the late Ralph Tomlinson, will not be available for check out but will be available for in-library research, says Kevin Ross, associate dean of Leatherby Libraries. The library envisions the collection being of particular interest to students in the College of Educational Studies, as well as scholars researching cultural and social history, reading habits and childhood.

“It’s a pretty rare collection,” Ross says.

It’s also a glimpse into reading traditions of bygone eras. The collection is heavy with boys’ series novels that feature assorted “chums” lucky enough to be kicking around with robots, “flying machines,”  rocket ships, motor boats, home radio sets and early filmmakers. Among the collection is the entire “Motion Picture Chums” series, “The Motor Boat Boys Series,” “Air Combat Stories for Boys” and “Our Young Aeroplane Scouts.” A particular jewel in the collection is the complete set of the “Famous Alger Stories for Boys” by Horatio Alger.

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