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Children’s Books for Teaching, Research, and Fun:  The School Collection at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

by Amanda Weber and Nancy P. O’Brien

The School Collection, fondly known as the S-Collection, in the Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library (SSHEL), located in the Main Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is a unique and ever-changing space.  Established in 1941 with about 3,000 titles, the collection was later relocated to the Education and Social Science Library (SSHEL’s previous name) from the Library Science Library in 1964-1965.  Years later, the collection grew explosively in 1993 when the Center for Research Libraries awarded 58,000 uncatalogued children’s books through a competitive process to the University Library.  Cramped for space, the S-Collection received a huge upgrade in 2012, moving to a room at least four times as large when the Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library opened its doors after a consolidation of three separate libraries.

Room 106: the previous space for the S-Collection.

Room 112: the current home of the S-Collection.

Collection Size and Description

With more than 173,000 volumes of children’s and young adult literature, both fiction and nonfiction, it boasts the second largest collection of children’s literature in the United States after the Library of Congress!  In addition, the S-Collection contains a reference collection that is relevant to the study of children’s literature, including bibliographies, indexes, biographical materials about authors, and more.  It features non-circulating and circulating copies of every Caldecott and Newbery Medal Award winner as well as works by specific authors that are collected comprehensively.  The collection encompasses books published in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and is complemented by older children’s books in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, such as a 1782 version of Aesop’s Fables.  In particular, the S-Collection is known for its collections of alphabet books, Aesop’s fables, and Abraham Lincoln biographies. 

Close-up of some of the picture books in the collection.

Collection Uses

Because it strives to be comprehensive, the S-Collection is used by a variety of patrons.  Many education and library and information science students use the books and kits for their class assignments and practical experiences in classrooms and libraries.  Preschool students from the university’s Child Development Lab have even visited on a field trip complete with story time and the chance to explore the vast picture book collection.  And, with the unique facsimile collections of Early English Children’s Books (published before 1911) and Classic Children’s Literature (published before 1932), its value is appreciated by those doing doctoral and historical research.  Local teachers and university staff, faculty, and students also make use of the collection for classes, their children, or personal reading due to its convenient location. In addition to the space in SSHEL, the University of Illinois also has the luxury of being able to keep older and less frequently circulated materials in a high-density storage facility on campus.  This allows the collection to keep growing while still being available for use by students and researchers.  The S-Collection website (https://www.library.illinois.edu/sshel/s-coll/index.htm) takes things a step further by highlighting resources to use for research, various bibliographies, and tools for utilizing children’s literature.  With all of these available resources and learning opportunities, the S-Collection strives to serve its users and provide quality experiences with children’s literature. As a result, the collection is one of the highest circulating collections in the library system.

Special Features

A fun fact about the children’s literature collection at the University of Illinois is that it includes the University’s 12-millionth volume.  Nancy O’Brien, the head of SSHEL, assisted in the selection of the manuscript of The Adventures of Tommy for this momentous purchase.  This is the only children’s book written and illustrated by H.G. Wells, and it tells the tale of a young boy who rescues a rich man from the sea and the strange gift he receives in return.   Housed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, this story reflects the wide range of material written for children.  From popular series such as Little Golden Books and Harry Potter to multicultural books published in the 1940s, the extensive collection represents changes over time in the subject matter considered suitable for children.

The first page of H.G. Wells’ manuscript of “The Adventures of Tommy.”

Beyond the books, the S-Collection also hosts a blog that is updated monthly by a graduate assistant.  Each post centers around a unique theme that highlights titles in our collection and how to use the materials we own.  For example, our February 2019 blog post is titled “The Magic of Dreams” and can be found at http://publish.illinois.edu/childrenslit/2019/02/01/the-magic-of-dreams/.  The blog is also utilized to respond to questions asked by library users, such as the blog entry about books in Chicano English: http://publish.illinois.edu/childrenslit/2015/03/02/chicano-english-vernacular-books-for-children-and-youth/.Previous blog entries can be explored easily, going back all the way to 2005 for a plethora of information and book suggestions.

Patrons have also used the expertise of staff and the vast collection of the S-Collection in order to search for children’s books from their past and relive fond memories.  For example, in early 2018 the library received a question from someone looking for a favorite childhood book for a friend.  The whimsical book was published in Israel and written in Hebrew.  With a little sleuthing and assistance from the Middle East and North African (MENA) Studies Librarian, we were able to locate this book in WorldCat and even better, the MENA librarian found a copy for sale at a bookstore in Israel.  The patron was delighted and impressed with the library’s dedication and assistance.  Children’s books are a powerful way for people to construct and discover their identity as well as celebrate the diversity of the world, and SSHEL is committed to helping patrons create and remember those experiences.


In the spirit of connecting readers to stories that delight and inspire them, the University Library (SSHEL in particular) partners with the College of Education every two years to host the Youth Literature Festival.  During this 3-day event, we celebrate the power of literature in children’s lives by bringing authors, illustrators, poets, and storytellers to local schools to share their stories and love of books.  The S-Collection then shares their books in fun displays throughout the first floor of the Main Library to engage and inspire the university community in this endeavor.  The festival culminates with a Community Day Celebration that is free to the public and includes author panels, activities for kids, performances, and more.  In 2019 the Youth Literature Festival will take place March 28-30, with the Community Day on March 30.  Check out the event website for more information! https://youthlitfest.education.illinois.edu/homepage

The Youth Literature Festival logo.


As the collection grows, so do the possibilities for finding the books that meet the needs of students and other scholars.  Too often, older children’s books are discarded because the content is considered outdated or no longer appropriate or the books are in poor condition. To find those books that truly reflect the historical and ongoing record of books printed for young people, collections such as the School Collection at the University of Illinois are invaluable.  About 3,000-4,000 new books are added each year through purchase of recently published material and gifts of older books.  Whether the collection is used for research on trends in publishing books for children, teaching how to incorporate children’s books into the classroom to improve literacy, or to satisfy a nostalgic look at childhood favorites, the S-Collection continues to provide a rich, broad source of material for a variety of purposes. 

For more information about the S-Collection, visit the website or contact the authors.

Copyright 2019 by Amanda Weber and Nancy P. O’Brien.

About the authors:

Amanda Weber is a Graduate Assistant in the Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MSLIS School Librarian Licensure candidate (December ’19) in the School of Information Sciences. She is committed to fostering a love of reading in her future students, providing them with opportunities to be engaged in their communities, and embracing her role as a professional chameleon.

Nancy P. O'Brien is Professor and Head of the Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  She is the 1997 Distinguished Education and Behavioral Sciences Librarian (Association of College and Research Libraries).  Her publications focus on the history, organization, and preservation of education resources in libraries.