The world’s largest library, the U.S. Library of Congress recently made a collection of historic children’s books publicly available online. These relics from the past, some of which are 100 years old, would likely not be viewed by children today, but now anyone can view these children’s books for free online. All of the books in the collection were published in England and the United States before 1924 and are no longer under copyright, meaning they can be enjoyed and shared by anyone.
Some titles are familiar to us all—Humpty Dumpty and Little Red Riding Hood. Others are not so well-known—The Rocket Book and The Juvenile National Calendar or A Familiar Description of the U.S. Government.
The release coincided with the 100th anniversary of Children’s Book Week. You can watch librarians and children’s book authors reading some of the newly released children’s books on the Library of Congress’s YouTube Channel here.
The Library of Congress divided the books into three categories:
Learning to Read – alphabet books and other books aimed at teaching children to read
Reading to Learn – educational books on topics such as government, math, and science.
Reading for Fun – imaginative books of fiction and poetry
Perpetuating ‘Problematic’ Themes or Peering Into History
While there is much to celebrate in the stories and illustrations of these historic books, the Library of Congress and others have acknowledged that both in context and syntax, they may not relate to today’s children and parents.
In fact, the Library of Congress even included a disclaimer with the release of the collection, saying, “We thought it was important to note that the Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these books, which may contain content offensive to users.”
The Library explained, “We knew that the style of writing, the subject matter, and even the jokes found in century-old books might be difficult for young readers today to engage with. We knew that every book that we selected would inevitably reflect some of the attitudes, perspectives and beliefs of its own time, as well as failing to represent diverse authors and audiences.”
An article in the New York Times also addressed this issue, saying, “classic children’s books can easily present images and story lines that today’s parents find problematic, either because of what is printed or illustrated on the page or because of what—and who—is left out.”
Historic Literature Through Today’s Lens: A Conversation Starter
While the books in the collection may portray some attitudes and values different from those of today, they can stills serve a purpose for today’s children and in today’s classrooms.
Instead of discarding the books because they are not inclusive and may not align with today’s values, The Library of Congress explains that these books offer “valuable opportunities for careful student analysis and discussion,” explaining that “reading the books through historical lenses can deepen student understanding of the past and can offer opportunities for students to consider what has—and what has not!—changed.”
The Library of Congress offers some tips for teachers to use these primary sources from the past in their classrooms on its blog here.
“We’re celebrating the fact that these books provide us with the opportunity to have conversations about what is appropriate or inappropriate, that they help us understand a different time.” Lee Ann Potter, director of the office of learning and innovation at the Library of Congress told the New York Times.
Close observation of historic works also reveals interesting cultural themes. For example, Jacqueline Coleburn, rare book cataloger at the Library of Congress, told the New York Times, that we can detect a difference in the messaging in popular children’s books that were published in the United States versus in England.
“In British books often the message is, be content where you are,” she said. On the other hand, in American books, a different theme begins to take shape. “Be a good person and you can improve your station in life and that will make you happy,” she said.
Children’s Literature Today: What’s Changed?
While the release of this collection comes with a disclaimer form the library itself as well as comments from experts and professors about the limited scope of representation in the books, how much has changed in today’s children’s literature?
Among the 100 most popular children’s books sold in 2017, lead characters were 50 percent more likely to be male, and villains were eight times more likely to be male, according to a study reported on in the Guardian last year.
By contrast, among parents, mothers were much more likely to make an appearance in a storybook than a father. Mothers were twice as likely to appear in storybooks, and when fathers did appear, it was almost always as a co-parent.
Here in Barcelona at least one public school just made the news for taking issue with sexism in the children’s books in its library. Táber is reportedly taking about 200 children’s books out of its library because of sexist content. You can read more about it on the blog, Why Evolution Is True.
Minorities are also rarely portrayed in children’s books. Just 4 percent of children’s books publishd in 2017 in the United Kingdom included characters that were ethnic minorities, as reported by TheBookSeller.com.
What do you think about inclusion in children’s literature? Do you think older books that aren’t inclusive or representative of today’s values should be removed from shelves or studied as a view into the past?