If you write and draw picture books, you likely have a bookshelf or two full of your go-to resources. You may even have a pile of books that you haven’t read yet. What you may not know is that you have another source of books that belongs to you and to your entire community—your public library—and chances are, you’ve probably only scratched the surface of what’s available. You don’t need to be an academic or a researcher to access research books and special collections; illustrators, authors, and casual readers are welcome. And it’s all free. It can be an intimidating system to navigate, so I spoke with some librarians to get some practical information on their amazing collections and how kidlit creators can utilize it all.
|The author of this article poking through a favorite from the Free Library of Philadelphia|
Beyond being embedded in their communities, librarians are trained in helping patrons to access information. One of the librarians at the Mission branch helped me to find heavily-illustrated middle grade books featuring non-white protagonists. I had done a cursory google search combined with some amazon recommendations, but talking with her was a distinctly different experience: she gave me some recommendations based on what she knew was popular, we looked through some books together and talked about comics, and I walked away that day with American Born Chinese.
Finding resources for kidlit inspiration shouldn’t end in the children’s department. I spoke with Alina Josan at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central library Art Department about what they have available (so much amazing stuff), and who can access it (anyone). Like the curated book displays at the Mission library, Josan has curated a number of exhibits around items in the collection that she’s excited about and wants to share. For example, the show I saw when I visited over Memorial Day weekend was called The Art of Comics. It was amazing, with a number of books I had only heard of before and never seen.
|photo from the Free Library blog piece on the Art of Comics|
There are also special collections dedicated to children’s literature, ephemera and printed books, one of which is also at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and you, as a writer or illustrator, or a casual reader, can access any of these things. The Children’s Literature Research Collection (CLRC) is one of the largest research collections dedicated to children’s literature in a public library at 80,000-90,000 volumes, with both rare or out-of-print materials as well as artist materials.
|from the dummy for RUFUS by Tomi Ungerer|
|from the dummy for CRICTOR by Tomi Ungerer|
|from MARIA HAD A LITTLE LLAMA, Angela Dominguez (2015)|
Know that you have to set up an appointment (call or email), and they’ll do their best to accommodate and welcome you. You can't just show up like you can in the Art department, particularly now because their materials are held in offsite storage while the building is going through renovations. You don’t need a library card (again just an ID). Brown said that mostly people use the collection to find inspiration, or to see how something was made, and when they have questions about an individual piece (e.g., “was this made with gouache?”) they typically have a direct line of contact to the creator of the estate directly to get answers.
|drawings from MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS by Robert Lawson|
Another reason to call or email and ask for materials, rather than search the Free Library’s catalog online, is that only around 50% of the CLRC is digitally catalogued. The catalog was originally archived through a physical card catalog, and with so many materials and a small department, the staff is in a very long game of catch-up. So if you want to get a sense for what they have, you have to ask.
Asking for help can be intimidating at a place like the FLP, particularly if you’re coming from the stance of “I’m just a humble doodler, I’m not a researcher with the backing of an academic institution.” You’re wrong, anyone can access this stuff. Personally, I have a hard time approaching anyone at a desk (I can barely talk to people on the phone), and with the FLP you literally enter a marble atrium, ascend a marble staircase, and enter a huge room with some people sitting behind a large officious desk. All of these librarians I talked to reassured me that all writers and illustrators need to just ask. The librarian is there because they know their stuff, and they want to help you find resources. A good place to start is by telling them what you like and what you’re looking to see (I mentioned that I was really into Kuniyoshi and stories of yokai, and Josan pointed me to their early edition collection of Hokusai’s manga):
Many larger urban libraries contain some other not-often seen gems, like the circulating picture collections at the FLP and NYPL. Imagine google image search, before the era of the internet. There are dozens of file cabinets full of tear-sheets, brochures, and other ephemera, and it’s categorized by subject. You can actually check these out too if you have a card:
|from the circulating picture collection, FLP|
|would never have found these otherwise|
|OHO! A book that can be read left to right and upside down by the Whistler brothers (1946)|