The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books: Scholarly Treasure on Lillian H. Smith’s Fourth Floor

In 1949, an enthusiastic British librarian named Edgar Osborne gave the Toronto Public Library 2,000 British children’s books from his personal collection. Sixty-two years later, The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books has grown from 2,000 items to over 80,000! Two additional collections, Lillian H. Smith and Canadiana, have augmented Osborne’s initial gift, adding extraordinary depth and breadth to the entire holding.

Inspired by a 1934 visit to the Boys and Girls House, Osborne and his wife Mabel were “deeply impressed by the work and reputation of Lillian H. Smith,” the Children’s Librarian responsible for “the first library exclusively devoted to children in the British Empire” (A Century of Service: Toronto Public Library 1883-1983, pages 59 and 30).

Edgar Osborne (1890-1978)

Nowadays, The Osborne Collection is used and appreciated by writers, illustrators, book historians, social historians, archivists, bloggers, teachers, librarians, graduate students, secondary school students, and younger children. In addition, tourists from as far away as Scotland and Japan have visited the Collection. J. K. Rowling‘s flowing scrawl appears in the archive’s visitor book above a lively sketch of a tall witch hat. The signature of the Empress of Japan is also in the book: three elegant characters written vertically in the exact centre of the page.

Celebrity sightings are exciting, but the wonderful thing about the Osborne Collection is that you don’t need to be the creator of Harry Potter‘s empire or an actual empress to enjoy it. “Mr. Osborne could have easily given his collection to a university, but he chose to make it accessible the public,” said Dr. Leslie McGrath, the erudite and welcoming librarian who serves as the Head of the Osborne Collection.

Dr. McGrath graciously asked me what I’d like to see when I visited the fourth floor on Friday afternoon, joining the ranks of thousands of ordinary Torontonians who have benefited from Osborne’s generosity and foresight. Responding to interest in volumes I’d loved as a child, Leslie unfurled two golden velvet cloths and set the table with a feast of original editions of Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The Pop-Up Secret Garden
Paper Doll of Colin

It was thrilling to see these volumes surface from previous centuries and land intact on a table in the Collection’s research room. And the treasures in Leslie’s cart just kept pouring out: original letters from L.M. Montgomery to Anne’s fans, a 600-year-old volume of Aesop‘s fables (its animal-skin pages still crackling), a tiny Bible and Koran, a woodcut for creating book illustrations, a Mesopotamian cuneiform clay tablet, and 18th and early 19th Century hornbooks. The latter consisted of framed squares of text “laminated” with a slice of sheep’s horn, and they served as hand-held tools for learning the alphabet, phonics, and important prayers. One of the hornbooks in the Osborne Collection had a small cross in the upper left-hand corner, a reminder to cross one’s self before the act of reading (like saying grace before a meal or proclaiming Bismallah — in the name of God).

Leslie also showed me a fascinating board game called Paths of Life. Created by one J. H. Cotterell in 1840, the edifying game takes players on a Pilgrim’s Progress-style journey through life’s moral ups and downs. From the illustrated map of the Path, we can discern that it’s a steep fall from Manly Hill to Contrition Vale, but it’s not nearly so far as the abject distance from the Bottomless Pit back up to Mount Recovery.

Depending on which number a player twirls on a dreidel-like game piece, he or she can visit Careless County (of Trouble District) or rest beside a Cheering Spring in Discreet County. For me, the Sites of Unrighteousness were the most entertaining: Cursing Corner, Revel Gully, Shame Pitch, Horror Bog, Indulgent Slope, Don’t Care Gap, Remorse Hedge, and No Friend Shed.

I was enchanted by the literary riches Leslie carted to the study area and equally delighted by the exhibit “Peter Pan, Pirates, Mermaids and Fairies” in the reception room. Filling the many display cases were penny dreadfuls, Victorian and Edwardian book covers, pop-up books, antique trading cards, and gorgeous illustrations from olden and modern times. There was even a knitted mermaid and a ship in a bottle!

(Why so pensive, pirate?)

The imaginative Peter Pan, Pirates, Mermaids, and Fairies exhibit runs until December 3rd and is free to the public. However, the upkeep of The Osborne Collection requires more than fairy dust and wishes upon a star. To ensure that this priceless archive has enough funding to continue and thrive, an organization (aptly) named The Friends of the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Collections helps raise money by selling items such as these cards that depict An Anciente Mappe of Fairyland and Edwardian bookshelves.

In my view, the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books does not reside on an Indulgent Slope of Frivolity. On the contrary, it is a Courteous Oasis of International and Canadian Civilization, a repository of our literary history and a precious material link to the past. The Collection is the unique place where I shared Anne of Green Gables with an unknown a reader who lived four generations ago. This is the kind of historical connection that an electronic book can not kindle!

In my previous post about Lillian H. Smith branch, I wrote that “a griffin‘s traditional role has been to defend treasure from marauders.” However, the guardians at the front door need our help to protect treasures like the Osborne Collection, for griffins do not sit on budgetary committees. It is up to us to nourish the vision of two extraordinary librarians: Lillian H. Smith and Edgar Osborne. We can do this by joining the Friends of the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Collections or just dropping by the fourth floor for a visit!

2 thoughts on “The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books: Scholarly Treasure on Lillian H. Smith’s Fourth Floor”

  1. Hear Hear to the last paragraph. The Osborne collection is one of the few collections that is available to the General Public, a degree, or University status is not necessary in order to look and touch some of the superb books of the past. To my mind the budgetary committees should be proud that they have this wonderful facility in their city and publicise it for all they are worth. It is a treasure for Toronto to be proud of.

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