The story of the Nolan Collection

By John & Grace Nolan

August 2016


“The Nolan Historical Children’s Literature Research Collection” is located in the Raheen Library at Australian Catholic University, Fitzroy, Melbourne.

In this short document we are going to explain:

  1. how and why we collected the books
  2. the origins of the Nolan Collection at ACU
  3. some of the content of the collection
  4. why we think the books are important

How and Why We Started Collecting

When we married in 1980 we shared a love of books and children's books in particular. Like most newly married couples we didn't have much money, but we would spend our spare time going to fetes, fairs, markets, opportunity shops and second hand book shops where we simply bought the books that interested us. It was our passion and hobby. We had no theme or era in mind and that is why the collection that grew was quite eclectic.

The books we collected are the sorts of texts read by the ordinary child in the ordinary home - they are, in general, not the high-end very expensive books some collectors specialise in. What we created was a cross section of the books read by the general populace, although now many of the books are quite valuable and fall into the rare book category. We believe it is this breadth and diversity of the collection that makes it interesting.

As any collector of children’s literature will admit, it is hard to find books in good condition due to constant usage and the often rough handling from their young owners. Some of the books were also ‘loved’ into disrepair. Nonetheless, we bought the books that we thought were interesting, even if their condition was far from perfect.

Origins of The Nolan Collection at ACU

In the early 1990s we enrolled in the Children's Literature course at ACU, then located at Chadstone. We donated some books to the university in the mid /late 90s when our lecturer, Professor Margot Hillel, asked if anyone had books to include in the Culican Collection.

In 2002 we shifted residence and, as our house was full of books, we asked Margot if she wanted any more for the Culican Collection. It was at this point that, through Margot, it was decided by the university the books we donated would form a separate collection to be known as the Nolan Collection. In the years that followed Margot, together with Stuart Whelan and other library staff, made it possible for us to add to the collection and it has continued to grow since then.

The Nolan Collection complements the Culican Collection. The  Culican Collection tends to be older books, whereas the bulk of our collection is probably early to mid 1900s through to 1970. This is an arbitrary end date simply because we had to stop somewhere and post 1970 children's literature seemed to us to be more modern in style and tone to post-war literature. However, if a book was part of a series that extended into the 1970s, or we thought it was a landmark or exceptional text in some way, we would include it. An example of this is the Digit Dick series.

Content and Importance

As we collected we realised the material in some of the books was very offensive. Most people may be aware of particular, popular children's authors who have been criticised in the past for their racism or views in their books. However, wide reading of texts from the collection reveals that many writers displayed these sorts of views, sometimes very blatantly, which today we find vile and abhorrent.

Racism, sexism, colonialism, religious bigotry, class distinctions, cultural imperialism, mistreatment and wanton killing of animals, military propaganda, denigration of indigenous societies and other objectionable material are all present in a variety of the texts. In contemporary times many of the texts would be considered unsuitable for general publication, let alone as reading for children, because of the odious attitudes and values they contain.

While we have collected the books we in no way support or endorse any of these deplorable values or views. There were certain books we found thoroughly objectionable and we had to decide: should we ignore them? throw them out? burn them? destroy them? pretend they never existed? For example, we would have to discard most Grimms' fairytales as in their original form they contain anti-Semitism, cannibalism, animal cruelty, incest, murder, violence and sexism.

Ultimately, we decided to include everything as we believe these offensive and objectionable texts are worthy of preservation for their historical and academic importance. They show us what society used to believe, the values it inculcated into its young, what was considered suitable reading for children and how society has changed. They also illustrate why those attitudes caused so much damage, how prevalent such misguided attitudes were and why we, as a society, must guard against them still.

We think their preservation is important because if we want to know what a society believes is vital at any time in history we can research newspapers, parliamentary records, public documents and the art and literature it produces. In particular, historical children’s literature reflects what people taught their children and reveals what they deemed essential learning and normal, acceptable standards at that time. It is the reading material a society places into the hands of its young that gives insight into what it esteems, promotes, preserves and wants to carry forward.

Leaving aside the objectionable nature of some of the content, the collection brings to light evolving attitudes towards childhood and children's literature. Each book has become a little time capsule, a window into a time, a place and a society. These books provide an insight into the heart and soul of a society at the time of their publication. Taken as a whole, the collection is a reflection of the world that produced the books and, therefore, we believe it is a valuable historic and academic resource.

We thank ACU for the opportunity to share the books and our passion for the importance of children's literature. In particular we thank Professor Margot Hillel for establishing and supporting this collection and for her enthusiasm, time and effort in promoting it over many years.

Page last updated: 26 Aug 2016

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