500 Years of History with a Happy Ending; in the Eighth Part of His Series Revealing the Hidden Treasures Soon to Find a Home at the New Library of Birmingham, Graeme Brown Examines a Priceless Collection of Children's Books Dating Back Five Centuries

Article excerpt

Byline: Graeme Brown

A Midland couple's desire to put smiles on the faces of nearby youngsters has inspired one of the most fulsome collections of children's books through the ages.

The Parker collection is so named because it was originally based on books bought by Mr and Mrs JF Parker from near Bewdley, who would share their compilation with young people who showed an interest.

Mrs Parker donated the collection to Birmingham Central Library when she was widowed and it is continually added to, creating a rare treasure trove of fairy tales, textbooks and picture books, providing a panorama of changing attitudes to children over four centuries.

The books, which date from the early 18th century - meaning some of the very first children's texts - to the present day, range from the morally-cleansing to those encouraging young people to follow their naughty urges.

Among the highlights are Komensky (Comenius), commonly referred to as Hoole's Comenius, translated by Charles Hoole in 1705 - the oldest from the original collection - and Stacey Grimaldi's The Toilet, from 1821, one of the first movable picture books - and among the many designed to teach virtuous behaviour to children.

Librarian Cherie Gladstone, who is in charge of the collection, said it is of interest to a range of people, from scholars of children's literature to grandparents wanting to show young relatives books from yesteryear.

She said: "Mr and Mrs Parker were starting to think they needed a home for their collections and fortunately they chose here. "As well as books they also collected children's toys and games. Their stuff came from their house in Bewdley, which was full of stuff.

"They used to take groups from schools around their house and Mr Parker would talk to everyone about all the things in the house."

The Parkers, who came from Tickenhill Manor, contributed the core of the collection after amassing literature published from 1830 up to the end of the 19th century.

They collaborated in their collecting with Mrs Mildred Berkeley who specialised in pre-1830 moral stories and chapbooks. Her books were acquired by the Parkers on her death and are now one of the strengths of the collection.

Mrs Parker donated the collection in the 1950s and the head of children's services at that time added a considerable number of school and adventure stories from the general library stock.

Many finely illustrated fairy tales and other illustrated children's books were transferred to the collection and it now contains books dating from 1538.

Books are still being added to the collection and every year the library buys one copy of the children's book that has won the Carnegie Award and one copy of the Greenaway Award winner to add to it.

The collection now stretches to between 15,000 and 20,000 items, including fiction and non-fiction books, magazines and annuals.

Ms Gladstone said it has a wide appeal.

She explained: "You get people coming to look at the collection because they are doing research about alphabet books or for more frivolous reasons. There was one granddad who used to bring his grandson in to look at comics."

Ms Gladstone said that often you can identify the age of a book in the collection by its size.

"The collection starts small and ends big because paper was so expensive to start with," she explained.

"You would have been a very well off family if you were buying books for your children. …