In 1953, as a 35th-birthday present from her parents, Ruth M. Baldwin received 40 19th-century children's chapbooks. Baldwin had been a collector all her life, but within a year of receiving these 40 chapbooks, children's books became the focus of her collecting interest, resulting in what today is a collection of over 100,000 children's books published between 1668 and the present.
As a collector, Baldwin cast a wide net. Any English-language children's book published in the United States or Great Britain before 1900 was fair game. By the mid-1970s Baldwin had amassed a collection of over 35,000 pre-1900 children's books, all housed in her home in Baton Rouge, where she lived and worked as a professor at Louisiana State University. A series of negotiations brought the collection, and Baldwin as curator, to the University of Florida in 1977. After the move to Florida, Baldwin decided that a research library of historical children's literature should not end with the 19th century, so she began to collect 20th-century literature as well. Subsequent curators continue to fill in 19th-century gaps, to enhance the 20th-century holdings, and to update the collection with currently published books.
Baldwin's goal was not a collection of books deemed appropriate for children by adults or books in pristine condition, but rather a collection of books actually read and handled by children. This philosophy garnered many editions of popular and well-known children's titles but also gathered in many unknown titles by anonymous authors that were read and loved by children over the years. These titles provide a cultural context for the well-known titles that have traditionally formed the accepted canon of children's literature. This array of unknown, uncelebrated authors and titles is one of the strengths of the collection, providing an opportunity for the scholar to explore the entire range of publishing for children.
The past 20 years has seen the growth of children's literature as an academic discipline, and the resources of the Baldwin Library have supported this growth and provided the material for a variety of papers, books, and dissertations from a cross section of disciplines, including the history of science, sociology, geography, music, American history, and English. A book on the history of American children's literature was based primarily on the holdings of the Baldwin Library. More recent projects have included papers by an undergraduate history class on publications during the American Civil War, the portrayal of fathers in the Little Golden Books, and an analysis of over 250 ABC books. These researchers have come from the University of Florida as well as from all parts of the United States and England. Now, through the efforts of the University of Florida Digital Library Center, with support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, selected books from the Baldwin Library are reaching a wider audience via the Internet and the collection Web site.
Collection Profile and Overview: Rita J. Smith
Illustrations: Ray Carson