The Wrinkles of Time: A Brief History of the Baldwin Library

By Kerry Elkins

Like many other people who adore books, Ruth Baldwin’s personal collection began with a gift. Her parents, who had been abroad in London, sent a number of nineteenth-century chapbooks to her for her birthday. These treasures sparked a search through garage sales, used book stores, and consignment shops for unique copies of children’s literature. Such copies were not necessarily first editions, but books that children read and contained marks of provenance and use. Baldwin had a special interest in collecting Early American and British imprints for juvenile audiences.

Upon retiring from teaching at Louisiana State University in 1975, Baldwin met University of Florida professor of English Joy Anderson, who was in town to give a lecture on historical children’s literature at LSU. It was then that Anderson was introduced to the vast collection of 35,000 children’s books that Baldwin had acquired over the years and wished to see housed in an academic setting. Soon after Anderson returned to Gainesville, UF administrators met with Baldwin and persuaded her to bring her collection to the University of Florida in 1977. In 1982, the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature was officially opened. Baldwin remained at UF as curator until 1988.

Over the next decade, the collection grew to over 100,000 books (from the late 17th century through the 1950’s), expanding through various acquisitions, gifts to the library by the Baldwin family, and other donations.

In 1995, following the interim period after Baldwin’s passing five years earlier, her assistant, Rita Smith, was named the new curator. Her main goals were to catalog the books (as there was no proper system aside from the card catalog) and open the collection to the public for academic use. This advertising was achieved through various connections (i.e. Association of Library Services to Children’s National Planning of Special Collections and the Caldecott Award Selection Committee) and community outreach programs, including exhibits, inviting professors to make use of material in the Baldwin Library for their courses, and recording audio programs for National Public Radio’s Recess! , which were available to stations nationwide. Smith also worked to secure three National Endowment for the Humanities grants over several years that helped to fund the cataloging of the collection, conversions of text to microfilm and later to digital. Smith also served on the selection committee for winners of the Bechtel Fellowship, which was established in 1980 upon the death of Louise Seaman Bechtel. About 20,000 books were added to the collection during this period, with a focus on building the selection of the latter half of the 20th century and collecting award winning children’s books. Smith retired in 2010.

In April 2012, Suzan Alteri was selected as the new curator of the Baldwin Library. Alteri plans to focus adding editions that feature illustrations, whether they are books about illustrations or representative works of famous illustrators. She also hopes to start building the repertoire of young adult literature, graphic novels (not including manga or comics), and manuscripts whilst carrying on the tradition of collecting used books and award winners.