The Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University


A review of the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University (Princeton, NJ).

The Cotsen Children’s Library is a magical world for scholars working on the history of reading, reception, and publishing for children. It is also a fantastic resource for anyone seeking a full immersion experience into the visual culture of a particular time and place. Beginning with the gift of Lloyd E. Cotsen’s private collection, the Cotsen Library has continued to build an enormous archive of rare illustrated children’s books, manuscripts, original artworks, dime novels, jigsaw puzzles, moveable books, prints, and educational toys from the fifteenth century to the present day. The collection has holdings in over thirty languages, including English, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, and Russian. Some of the treasures include scrapbooks by Hans Christian Andersen, picture letters by Beatrix Potter, early editions of the Brothers Grimm, and a range of Soviet Constructivist children’s books. This review will focus only on the Japanese holdings.

A limited search of Japanese-language materials held by the Cotsen reveals 451 ehon (illustrated books generally produced for young readers), 51 zasshi (periodicals, including a very strong collection of graded materials for primary school students), 101 sets of karuta (playing cards), 251 sugoroku (snakes and ladders board games), several dozen kamishibai (story boards), 101 manga, and thousands of books. While the vast majority of the materials are primary sources, the collection also includes a limited selection of secondary critical materials, mostly studies of Japanese children’s book history and education.

Researchers should be aware that while the Cotsen is primarily a collection of children’s books, in the case of Japanese (and perhaps other non-Western languages), the rubric for acquisition tends to have focused not on target audience (juvenile readers) so much as on apparent lavishness of illustration. While there is generally a good deal of overlap between these categories – as children’s books tend to have more illustrations than those produced for mature readers – this is not always the case, and the Cotsen includes an interesting, eclectic range of items such as museum catalogs, maps, ephemera (pamphlets, recruiting materials, and so on), posters, illustrated novels, ukiyoe (woodblock prints), calendars, folding fans (ogi), broadsides, advertising materials, and photographs.

I have visited the Cotsen three times in the last two years (August 2013, September 2014, September 2015) in the course of working on a book pertaining to the visual culture of trans-war Japan. In particular, I have been interested in examining resources stemming from the Imperial Ministry of Education’s “literature for little citizens” (shōkokumin bungaku) concept. By the late 1930s this top-down cultural mandate had spawned multiple book series, several subgenres of children’s periodicals, textbooks, board games, playing cards, and a host of more ephemeral print forms. Sugoroku games—such as Toriyabe Sentaro’s 1907 “Future of East Asia” (CTSN 10 63394), Yokota Chosui’s 1924 “Vigorous Boys’ Siege Warfare” (CTSN 13 38910), and Morishita Iwataro’s 1931 “Founding of Japan, 3000 Year History” (CTSN 13 38911)—provide an important window onto the ways in which Japanese schoolchildren learned to envision the expanding imperial realm. Patriotic “A-B-C Flashcards” (iroha karuta, like CTSN Cards 98116, Cards 100765, and Print Case LA / Box 61 98442) suggest the degree to which pedagogy and nationalism were intertwined even for the youngest of children. Wartime collections of elementary school students’ poems, such as those compiled by Kitahara Hakushū, Namekawa Michio,  Kobayashi Jun’ichi, Ōhashi Shin’ichi, and Sueda Masu, capture snapshots of youthful maritime imaginations at work. And pedagogical materials such as those by Tsubota Hidetoshi, Kaigo Tokiomi, Maeda Akira, and Abe Sueo demonstrate the pressures on youth to volunteer for military duty and the degree to which they were already conceived of as a “children’s brigade” by the first years of primary school. While I had been able to track down some of these materials elsewhere—at the National Diet Library in Tokyo, the Prange Collection at the University of Maryland, the Library of Congress, and a range of libraries and archives in Japan—the Cotsen’s collection was the most varied.

While the collection is easily searched from off-site (see below), curators are still actively acquiring materials. On my research trip in 2014, curator Andrea Immel allowed me to examine several crates of new shipments from Japan, which were just being unloaded and, of course, had not yet been cataloged. Researchers who want to really dig into the rich holdings that the Cotsen possesses should plan to spend at least a week in residence; two weeks is better, and you would not run out of material to view in three. Careful planning is always important when working in archives, and in this case it is essential, especially if you can only spend a few days on site. Build in some time, early in your visit, to talk with the curator.

Before you go, you will need to invest a significant amount of time searching the holdings via the digital catalog. The first step is to set up a user account with the AEON system. First-time users should examine for full instructions on how to use the system, how to create a user account, and how to log requests. Once you have an account, you can search the Princeton Library holdings at To search specifically within Special Collections, click the “More Limits” button at the bottom right and use the drop down menu for “Location” to choose “Rare Books and Special Collections.”

Cotsen materials do not circulate, but must be consulted in the Dulles Reading Room of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. So, when you find an item that you would like to view on site, log a request. Each request will be answered with a message that reads something like, “Request Received. Transaction Number xxxxx. Your request will be processed when you arrive.” I would strongly recommend that you print out a copy of your request list to bring with you.

Be sure to contact the curator (Andrea Immel in advance of your trip. Introduce yourself, describe your basic research project in a few sentences, and check to make sure that she will be there, and that the collection will be open, during the dates you want to plan for research. It is handy, at this point, to attach (as a PDF) an organized list of your requests, indicating which items you most hope to see, particularly if you will need to move through a large number of materials in fairly short order, as this may allow the Special Collections team to prepare a bit in advance of your visit. The Dulles Reading Room of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in Firestone Library is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. – 4:45 p.m. (Summer Hours 8:45 a.m – 4:15 p.m.), with the exception of major holidays.

You may also wish to check into applying for a Friends of the Princeton Library fellowship for using the collection’s resources. Short-term library research grants can be sought and cover expenses up to $3500 USD. For more information, visit The site includes a list of previous research fellows and their projects, as well as summaries of their experiences with the collection, though this section (unlike the rest of the website) has not been updated in several years.

Having queued up your requests and contacted the curator in advance, you’re now ready to travel to Princeton. When you get there, go to Firestone Library, located just off Nassau Street, the main road dividing campus from downtown. (For a campus map, see Your first stop will be the imposingly named Privileges Office. Go in the main doors of Firestone Library and take an immediate right; the office is on your right. If you are lucky, there will not be a line. Fill out an access form, present your photo ID, and get your photo taken. You should request both a “Rare Books and Special Collections Patron Card” and a Visitor’s Card to use the general stacks. Take a seat while your cards print. NOTE: This process seems to go much more smoothly for researchers who present a current, valid, university photo ID. Expired cards, non-university cards, and cards written in languages other than English may present a delay in processing while the holder’s credentials are verified. Prepare to be patient.

Once you have your cards, you are ready to enter the library proper. The entrance to Special Collections is just past the lovely children’s library—complete with enormous tree—on your right. (On my most recent visit, there was some construction work in process, so the entrance to Special Collections required entry into the main stacks, after which there was an interesting, industrial sort of tunnel to go through. Check at the Privileges Office when you get your cards to see where the entrance to Special Collections is currently located.)

Upon entering the Special Collections area you will need to place all of your belongings into a small locker. Don’t bring anything bulky. Though the lockers are generally big enough to hold a backpack and small laptop, it’s a snug fit. The lockers are token-operated; you can find a token in the return of any open locker. Place it in the slot, push the door firmly shut, turn the key and take it with you. You are not allowed to bring anything into Special Collections, unless you fill out, and a librarian approves, a special form. Seriously, this means NOTHING. Not a piece of paper. Not a pencil. Just whatever you can put in your pants pockets. If you want to bring in your laptop, a few papers (like your requests list), or a digital camera, you will need to request, fill out, and get a signature on a special Authorization Form or two.

The next step is to present your access card to the person minding the desk. She will log you in and direct you to wash your hands, thoroughly, in the adjacent restroom. Having done this, you can proceed through the librarians’ desks toward the Dulles Reading Room. Stop along the way at the one computer terminal to activate your queue of requests.

When you get to the Dulles Reading Room, take a moment to greet the librarian seated at the front table. Present your access card, confirm that your request queue has been activated, and respond to any queries she or he may have. While you wait for your first truck of materials to arrive—they are only pulled every half hour or so, except during the lunch break—settle in. Find a desk, sharp pencil, scratch paper, foam cradles, weights and snakes. This is also a good time to familiarize yourself with the various request forms (for photoduplication, for use of a digital camera, for permissions, and so on) situated in a rack just to the left of the entry door.

This process is all well worth it once the materials start to arrive.

The Cotsen’s photoduplication services are professional-grade and the permissions process is clear, but there is often a backlog in the reproduction department, and it can take several months sometimes to receive the TIFF or JPG files. Take good notes during your stay and, as far as is possible, plan to take digital photographs for personal research purposes. You will want to keep very careful track of which pages of which documents you would like reproduced. While in the Dulles Reading Room, you will need to enter this information, in pencil, on the forms provided. While tedious, taking the time to hand-copy the requests on a second sheet, which you can take with you, is important, as you may need to supply specific information several weeks after your departure. If possible, having a digital photograph of the item (or part of the item) you would like to have reproduced can be helpful in clarifying the request, should concerns or points of ambiguity present themselves.

Concerning creature comforts, Princeton is an expensive place to stay. The Nassau Inn is only a 5 minute walk from campus, but can book up quickly. I have had better luck arranging lodging (particularly for longer visits) through on-line sites like Air B&B and Sabbatical Rentals. Princeton is great for kids. I brought my family on each of my research trips, and they enjoyed the Cotsen’s children’s activities on Fridays, the on-campus museum, the various parks around town, and the fantastic Grounds for Sculpture, which is a short drive away.

Address: One Washington Road; Princeton, NJ 08544-2098 USA
Tel: (609) 258-3184
Special collections:

Charlotte Eubanks
Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Japanese, and Asian Studies
Penn State

Image: Watanabe Shigekuni, illus. Nanpō meguri sugoroku: Dai Tōa kyōeiken banzai (Travels in the South board game: Long live the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere). Tokyo: Fujiya ganguten, 1942. 55 cm x 78 cm. Ink on paper. Cotsen Children’s Library. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Princeton University Library. Permission to use the image from the Cotsen Library.

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