Meredith A. Bak
I wish to thank the Friends of the Princeton University Library and the Cotsen Children’s Library for awarding me a Library Research Grant, which permitted me to visit Princeton and see some of the Library’s resources related to my area of research. During my nearly three week visit to the Library, I had the opportunity to examine a range of fascinating optical toys in the Cotsen and Graphic Arts Collections, as well as a variety of ancillary materials such as pedagogical manuals and catalogs from educational companies, all of which enabled me to better understand the roles that optical and perceptual devices played in children’s culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to facilitating access to these collections, the fellowship permitted me to be a part of a stimulating community of library researchers and staff, further positively impacting my work.
Andrea Immel and Aaron Pickett at the Cotsen Library, and Julie Mellby in the Graphic Arts collections all generously offered their time and support during my visit to Princeton. Prior to my arrival, Andrea Immel assisted me in developing a list of key Library resources related to my research. My entry point for considering these items of children’s material culture is Film and Media Studies, and Andrea introduced me to some of the work of previous fellows, which helped me form a context for the kind of scholarship I undertook while in residence. Julie Mellby similarly provided an invaluable overview of relevant materials in the Graphic Arts Collection, and arranged an opportunity for me to closely work these objects in a focused manner. I was grateful for the patience and help provided by Aaron Pickett, who tirelessly aided me in examining specific objects, some of which required special handling. With guidance from the curatorial staff, I was able to identify related materials such as moveable books, early kindergarten manuals, and materials related to training children’s senses in the nineteenth century. The ability to access these printed materials in tandem with the object themselves proved extremely beneficial in thinking about environments in which optical toys may have been used. The unique opportunity to examine such a range of materials allowed me locate these devices in the context of nineteenth century childhood.
The wealth of sources I was able to consult while at Princeton also helped me to refine my core research questions. Because I had the opportunity to examine each device so closely, I began to consider how each medium’s unique qualities might have facilitated a particular kind of play, leading me to extend my thinking about medium specificity related to optical toys. Related to this was the question of how these devices have aligned visual perception along a developmental trajectory, and the different ways that they frame their user’s field of vision. In particular, my thinking was especially stimulated by two very interesting sets of thaumatrope cards and by a set of phenakistoscope discs in the Cotsen collection. The Graphic Arts Collection contained two examples of zoetrope strips in their original, bound and uncut formats, which I have never seen before, and their holdings also include examples of praxinoscope Magic Mirror Records, which were expressly marketed as developmental toys and extend the lifespan of “pre-cinema” apparatus well into the twentieth century. These findings have all pushed my line of inquiry further, helping reaffirm some of my initial assumptions and revise others.
Throughout my stay in Princeton, the staff in the reading room and Rare Books and Special Collections Department all offered their kind support, creating a pleasant work environment. Staff members warmly facilitated access to the collections, and I was so pleased to share each of my discoveries during my visit. Working with historical objects often requires great care and special accommodations, and can be time consuming. For this reason in particular, I was so grateful for the curatorial staff’s generosity with their time, earnestly assisting my investigations and offering their support. I so enjoyed discussing my findings, and learning about the unique concerns related to preserving and providing access to such collections.
My opportunity to conduct research at the Princeton Library developed my work and introduced me to a variety of related media and resources that have helped me further understand the contexts in which optical toys have been used. Discussions with Library staff and other researchers were enriching, and have continued to inform my work. I am so grateful to have been awarded this research grant, and wish to offer my sincere thanks to the Friends of the Princeton University Library and the Cotsen Children’s Library.