By Renee Runge
Growing up, I always had the idea of entering a career related to children’s books in some capacity, whether that be teaching, writing, publishing, or something else entirely. When it was time for me to begin considering college, there was no question what my major would be – English, of course – but as a senior in high school, I didn’t think that children’s literature had a significant place in academia.
It came as a massive surprise to me upon course registration during my first semester at the University of Florida that multiple classes were offered on the study of children’s and young adult literature. During my second semester at UF, I had the opportunity to take my first of those courses, which led to many others after it.
In my sophomore year, I saw on the syllabus for my class on the Golden Age of children’s literature that a visit to the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature was scheduled for later in the semester. I remember feeling a mix of confusion and excitement: did my school really have an entire library dedicated to children’s books? Yes, but not in a traditional sense.
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Navigating the Archives of the Baldwin Library of Children’s Literature
Located in George A. Smathers Library’s Special Collections on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, Florida, the Baldwin Library is hidden away in the university archives. The books that comprise the collection are kept in a temperature-controlled room (which I thought was pretty chilly!) that can only be accessed by the curators or guests with supervision.
During one of my visits to the university archives for an English course outside of the study of children’s literature, one of the curators at Smathers offered to bring some students on a tour of the archive, to which I readily agreed. This was when I saw the Baldwin in its entirety for the first time.
Within the archive, there are rows and rows of electronic shelves dedicated to the Baldwin alone, alongside other collections of various academic and cultural significance. If you’re seeking specific novels from the collection, the curators can assist you by bringing the works from the archive up to you in the Grand Reading Room, which is a huge beautiful room on the second floor of the Smathers Library.
When I’ve visited for class sessions, we’ve been brought through the Grand Reading Room into the equally gorgeous Judaica Suite, home of the Library of Judaica, a special collection of Jewish literature. There, we view selections from the Baldwin chosen for the topic of the class in a smaller space that won’t impede on students doing their own quiet research in Smathers.
A Short History of the Baldwin Library of Children’s Literature
So, how did UF get so lucky to be the home of this collection? The library’s namesake, Ruth Baldwin, was obsessed with acquiring children’s reading materials, a hobby that stemmed from the gift of a collection of English chapter books from her parents for her thirty-fifth birthday. In the same year of 1953, Baldwin went on to amass somewhere between three and four hundred more books from her parents, inspiring her to continue to build a collection over the next twenty years.
It’s said that Baldwin was such a bibliophile that most of her librarian’s salary went to fueling her hobby of finding editions of children’s books. While she started with purchasing books from new and used bookstores and yard sales, she later had to rely heavily on catalogues for unique finds. Eventually, Baldwin realized that her collection of children’s books had outgrown the confines of her home, which she made several additions to over the years in order to continue keeping her ever-growing horde of books.
It was then that she started to think about rehoming her prized possessions. After attending a lecture at the University of Florida and telling a professor of her personal library in 1977, Ruth Baldwin became Librarian and Curator of Children’s Literature at UF, where she worked for eleven years until her retirement.
It is said that until her time at UF, she had not yet begun collecting the twentieth-century children’s literature that the collection is so well known for today. Upon its arrival to UF, the impressive collection held 32,500 children’s books. In the following ten years, it grew to a size of over 100,000. Today, the Baldwin Library holds more than 120,000 books and magazines from the United States and Great Britain, meaning that of all of the academic institutions in the United States, the University of Florida possesses the largest collection of early American children’s imprints.
Something of interest about Baldwin’s book collecting habits is her lack of attention to the physical quality of the books; instead, she focused primarily on the retention of books that have evidence of use before their addition to her collection. Scholars of the library note the inscriptions and other markings inside the covers of books that had previous owners.
Many of the books in her original collection are very worn or otherwise physically damaged to varying degrees. But the books’ quirks are what made them so appealing to Baldwin, knowing that there were things to be learned about where they came from and who they were read by. Her original collection has since been greatly expanded to include other collections and donations from children’s literature aficionados and other universities.
Known worldwide for its collection of twentieth-century children’s literature as previously mentioned, one of the Baldwin Library’s big draws is the variety of editions of many different children’s novels, which is essential for comparative study. It also contains historic toys, games, and other children’s media that are preserved for study.
The Baldwin Library Today
After Ruth Baldwin’s passing in 1990, Rita Smith became the new curator of the Baldwin Library. During her time as curator, her main priorities were creating a catalog of the items in the collection, as well as transitioning the library into a state where it could be used in academia. In 2012, the current curator, Susan Alteri, took over and has been working to expand the library in several directions, including growing the selection of graphic and illustrated novels, young adult literature, and manuscripts.
One of the current projects being undertaken by the library is the digitization of its materials so that anyone can access them online. Right now, over 6,000 titles from the Baldwin can be viewed online.
The Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature has definitely played a role in my decision to continue on to graduate school in order to one day become a professor of children’s literature. I think it’s amazing that I just so happened to end up at the university with one of the world’s greatest resources for the study of children’s books.
As I prepare to start my undergraduate honors thesis, I am so grateful that someone like Ruth Baldwin, with her true love and care for keeping these books, had such a huge impact on academia and the continuing study of children’s literature.