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Archives and special collections

Rees-Williams Collection

Originally collected by James Rees-Williams, a former York St John Librarian in the 1970s, the York St John University collection of historic children's books consists of over 3000 volumes dating from around 1780 to the 1920s.

The collection includes well-known 'classics' of children's literature, as well as a wide spectrum of adventure yarns, improving tales, annuals and now long-forgotten stories.

The majority of books are children's fiction, however, a number are early text books, as well as fables and fairy tales, adventure yarns, nursery stories, religious and instructive works, annuals, and historical and biographical books. They represent a wide ranging picture of the writing for children in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

There are many well-known authors included in the collection including Mrs Molesworth, Mrs Sherwood, Lewis Carroll, J M Barrie, Charles Kingsley, Jules Verne, Robert Ballantyne, W H G Kingston, Charlotte Yonge, Hesba Stretton, and G A Henty. Most of the books have decorated covers, are attractively bound and contain illustrations by artists, including the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane. They are in generally very good condition, and retain their original colours.

The Religious Tract Society publications are well represented, along with other important publishing houses of the day such as Nelson, Frederick Warne, Routledge, Shaw, and Blackie. There is an extensive collection of annuals including Chums, Boy's Own, Girl's Own, Little Folks, and Chatterbox.

Content warning and position statement

Documents in special collections have contextual history and, as a whole, can inform our understanding of the contexts in which they came to exist. Within the 150 years of children's writing which is represented in the collection, there is a widespread occurrence of colonialist narratives which centre white supremacy, and racist and orientalist methods of both fictional and historical storytelling.

As such, it is possible, if not likely, that items consulted from the collection will include language and visual imagery which is racist, and many people may find their contents upsetting and offensive.

As custodians of historical documents, it is our duty to recognise their historic and current power in the marginalisation of the peoples who are subjects within them, and examine why we continue to preserve and house such items when their ability to cause damage endures. Here at York St John University, we unequivocally reject the stereotypes and offensive narratives which are contained within these documents. We are also committed to preserving and providing access to the evidence of the racist marginalisation and stereotyping of peoples through children’s literature during this time period. To do so requires continuous learning, reflection and consultation on how such a collection should be managed, and as such we welcome conversation about and research into the collection.

Visiting the Collection

If you would like to visit the Collection, please contact the York St John Archives and Special Collections for an appointment:

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