The story behind a children’s story

The Kerlan Collection preserves the history of children’s books and their creators.

by Jenna Ross

As a University’s Kerlan Collection employee, first-year student Lee Richards gets a sneak peek at the material joining the library’s 90,000 children’s books.

“I’m one of the first people not in the publication process to see manuscripts that haven’t even been published,” Richards said. “I get to browse through, get a feel for these books.”

Richards and other employees at the special collections library enjoy their jobs. Then again, they work with “Pokey Little Puppy,” “Strega Nona” and “The Babysitters Club.”

Researchers and interested students use the Kerlan Collection, a subset of the Children’s Literature Research Collections, to cross the “Bridge to Terabithia,” and explore the jungles of “Where the Wild Things Are” and follow the road to Oz.

Childhood favorites, Newberry and Caldecott Medal winners are all here, most first editions and many signed or inscribed by the author or illustrator.

“You read them as a child,” said professor Karen Hoyle, the curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections since 1967. “You become fond of them, and this library is fascinating in part because of that.”

What fascinates most researchers – many who come from around the nation and world – are not the books themselves, but the manuscripts, notes, correspondences, sketches and plans that preceded them.

The Kerlan Collection, named after founder Irvin Kerlan, houses these items, bringing the collection’s total number of pieces to “at least a million,” Hoyle said.

“A ton of creative output is stored here,” said library assistant John Barneson, who has worked with the collection for 10 years. “It’s all organized in creation order, from the original drafts to the later editions.”

Seeing this creative process reveals a great deal about an author, Hoyle said.

“Some people outline and plan and draft,” Hoyle said. “Others just sit down and illustrate a book.”

These original manuscripts and art differentiate the collection from others, making it an international resource.

Barneson and six undergraduate employees at the collection locate and retrieve materials for different purposes – most commonly for education and curriculum classes, American history researchers and English students.

A researcher first fills out a request slip or locates a file on the library Web site. An employee then goes underground in Andersen Library, passing through three locked doorways into the cavern of the special collections’ millions of books to retrieve the material.

“It’s not like Wilson where you can just walk in and pull stuff off the shelves,” Barneson said. “It’s a little more focused.”

Graduate student Justin Schweiger, who used the collection to research C.S. Lewis for his elementary education class, appreciated the help.

“They bring it right to you,” Schweiger said. “It’s interesting and really interactive.”

As curator, Hoyle said facilitating such research comprises a large part of her job.

“I love to see someone come here and use our materials for new knowledge,” Hoyle said. “It is an enormous satisfaction.”