The spooky BOOC : books with talking heads and books on white walls

When I was little, a book was a book. It did not have buttons to press to produce squeaky sounds or sacks of felt puppets to re-enact the story. It did not give links to online videos or interactive maps either, because the world-wide web had not even been invented. Even today, a book does not contain moving images, if you are located outside Harry Potter’s wizard world… or does it?

You could publish a book online and include audio and video features; but would it still be a book then or just another website? You could even expand it with a blog or a wiki; but it would surely lose its contours as a book and get blurred into the ocean of the internet? Can there be such a thing as a multimedia book, a fluid book, a ‘living’ book?

Screenshot of table of contents in visual form (bright boxes).

These questions were hotly debated at a seminar on the academic book of the future at the British Library in January 2017, running up to the launch of a BOOC… about BOOCS. Lara Speicher and Jaimee Biggins of UCL Press introduced two radically new concepts: fully Open Access academic publishing and the BOOC (Book as Open Online Content).

UCL Press is the only academic publishing house which is fully Open Access, putting the same titles which cost £15 or £20 in a bookshop online free of charge. The idea behind it is to advance research anywhere in the world but also explicitly to level inequality and eradicate poverty. This chimes in very well with the Institute of Education’s ethos of social justice. So far, UCL Press also has a focus on social sciences, including a series on social media and an education journal.

Screenshot of video of panel discussion.

A page in the book of the future? (Yes, the heads do talk and move.)

Beyond that, UCL Press is developing a dynamic book: a book that indeed includes text and images plus podcasts, blogposts, tweet streams…. I would call it doubly dynamic because it has moving features and because it changes shape. It is also specifically designed to display on various devices. What, though, distinguishes UCL’s Academic Book of the Future from a website?

As I gathered from the seminar, the BOOC is curated, under greater control than a blog would be: submissions in any format are peer-reviewed and approved by the editorial board. It gets updated regularly, which is also true for online encyclopaedias or databases – or, in fact, printed books going through many editions. Each chapter or item has a DOI as a permanent identifier, and the whole thing has an ISBN.

So far, so good – but how do put such a book on the library catalogue, and how do you keep such a book on the library ‘shelves’? This one is supported by Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Library; it is envisaged that the latter will periodically archive the content of the BOOC. There is an entry on the library catalogue, UCL Explore, but without an editor or a list of contents.

When one opens the BOOC, the contents are displayed in multi-coloured boxes rather than a list of titles, with the colour indicating the nature of the contribution. Instead of chapters, you get different arrangements of coloured fields, with some naturally coming up under different headings! They also slide around nimbly when you adjust the screen.

Screenshot of split screen, with content rearranged.

If you think all this is pretty bizarre, you have not seen anything yet. Like a “battery powered cinematic pop-up book” of Macbeth. I am not making this up (I don’t think I could): it is a quote from a recent project report by Marilyn Deegan. It is likewise called The Academic Book of the Future and, appropriately, accessible online and free of charge. There you can find brief descriptions of all kinds of multimedia BOOC projects.

At the British Library, a group of researchers from the University of Lincoln demonstrated academic books which you can read closed: the table of contents comes up on your desk when you put it down, or some text and images are projected onto the whiteboard (or the wall or curtain) when you activate it. This is somewhat more progressive than the slide-shows of the Seventies which proud hobby photographers used to project onto canvases or bed-sheets…

Interestingly, it was staff and students across the University of Lincoln who, during an intense workshop in May 2016, came up with a book model for the 21st century. The Collaboration Laboratory (co_LAB) prefers to call it ‘an interactive, multimodal system for augmenting the book’.

Drawing of computer with image of open book on screen.

Perhaps you will not be particularly surprised to hear that this concept goes beyond connecting resources of different types into the realm of connecting readers. The academic book of the future, as envisaged by co_LAB, will be personalised for and by the user or customised for and by a group.

The demonstration of their highly mobile, colourful and playful ‘Integrated Learning System’ on an ‘Interactive Surface’ made my head spin. I am not sure what happened in that room at the British Library. And I could not help wondering about the quality and clarity of such a BOOC’s content…

Yet on their web page, again entitled The Academic Book of the Future, the Lincoln researchers emphasise that all the high-tech and all the discussion should lead to ‘more  refined, reliable and relevant’ content, and make academic knowledge ‘more inclusive and accessible’ (italics added).

report by Donald J. Waters stresses that a “fully interactive” book must be reviewed by peers to qualify as  scholarly. It also addresses a number of practical issues: Will you actually own the book on your screen? Will it even be there two years later? Can you read and annotate it on all your devices?

Massive leather-bound book with short iron chain attached to it.Apparently, the Scholr information system does not replace the printed or online book but complements it and always remains centred on it. As regards academic libraries, The Collaborative Laboratory hopes for some communal tagging and indexing… and for some more interest in libraries!

My 20th-century brain imagines the BOOC as a complex climbing-frame or perhaps a space-station with a leather-bound volume suspended in the middle… If it will distract from an integral book entrusted to it, or unlock it and distribute its knowledge, only the, well, future will show.

Source of screenshots: BOOC at UCL Press. —  Photograph of early printed, but still chained, book: By Michail Jungierek (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in electronic resources | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A little Christmas Box just for you!

‘The Christmas Box’ c.1827-9 (Baines Collection 70)

Christmas, as is celebrated today, has its origins in the Victorian period thanks to Prince Albert bringing to England the German tradition of a Christmas tree lit with candles. By the end of the 19th century, the Christmas tree was a familiar sight in the homes of many well-to-do families and the joy of opening a Christmas box became part of the excitement of the festivities.

One of the children’s books in the Baines Collection held in the UCL Institute of Education’s Special Collection is an annual (the first for children published in England) with the title The Christmas Box. As the title is so relevant to this time of the year I would like to share the delight of this little book as a Christmas treat for everyone. The book, edited by T. Crofton Croker, is small in size – as was typical of children’s books at the time – so that they could fit in a child’s hands.  It is only 16.2 x 10.2 cm and was published between 1827 and 1829.  It has lovely wood cut prints  and includes short stories, verses, plays and articles and even a brief history of the Napoleonic wars.  This gives us information about what children from upper- and middle-class families read.

‘The Battle of Frogs and Mice’ (Baines Collection, 70)

The stories include ‘Battle of Frogs and Mice’, a short animal epic ascribed to Homer in the ancient world and ‘The Three Caskets’ which was used in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The book also contains a couple of firsts:   the first appearance of a Norwegian folk tale ‘The History of Asim and Asgard’ and the first publication of Scott’s poem ‘The Bonnets of Bonny Dundee’ (Hahn, 2015, p. 127). In addition, there are writings by the prolific author of adult and children’s stories Maria Edgeworth (1768 – 1849) who also wrote the well-known education treatise Practical Education (1801) (also in the IOE’s Special Collections) in which she and her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth combine ideas of different philosophers including John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The book concludes with a collection of carols and a message for the reader which seems appropriate for both the book and this blog post:

And now, little dears, we have only to wish you all good wishes,

and to thank you for your patience in perusing our small present.

May you all spend your Christmas holidays pleasantly, with every enjoyment and entertainment,

and be ready, when we meet again, to glance over our pages with the same good humour and glee as we trust you have done.

And so GOOD BYE.

And on that note, we’d like to wish you all a Happy Christmas and Best wishes for the New Year!

Posted in Library and Archives, Special Collections | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

‘A Splendid College’: Institutional Histories of Teacher Training Colleges

Nautical Teacher Training Colleges Proceedings at the Distribution of Prizes 1890, 92, 93

The Institute of Education Library has a large collection (approximately 2,500 books) of education institutional histories. These include histories of schools, colleges and universities. For the joint ICHRE (International Centre for Historical Research in Education) and FNLA (Friends of the Newsam Library and Archives) symposium which is on ‘Writing Institutional Histories’ on 12th December, I have chosen to focus on the histories of teacher training colleges as this is the core concern of the Institute of Education.  Many of these histories were written during the 1970s and 1980s following the publication of the James Report in 1972 which recommended closing and/or merging teacher training colleges with higher education institutions. They were written to ensure their historical memories would be kept alive.  However, there are other histories in the collection that are much older – from the late 19th century.  These include histories of teacher training for specialist subjects such as nautical and domestic sciences as well as psychology and physical education.  Related to this institutional histories collection are the training college prospectuses including a large collection from the 1930s.

The staff and student magazine of the Institute of Education

Using student records and student/alumni magazines, some authors  have managed to bring out the ‘voice’ of students and one also can get a sense of the ‘ethos’ of the institution (see Dent, 1977 and Whitehead, 2012 for instance). Additionally, one is able to gauge the themes that were prevalent at a particular time.  For instance, the formalisation of the routes to training and the examination process to qualify for teaching were implemented between 1925 and 1928, and by studying the different histories of teacher training colleges which existed at this time, one can compare how they dealt with these changes and how they impacted both the lecturers and the students. Some authors have also used institution records to build profiles of individual lecturers and/or students to understand what qualifications were required to teach the subjects in the education studies curriculum and how students fared after their training (see Robinson, 2004). Some histories show how the timetable changed over the years and what subjects were dominant during a particular period and the difference between the curriculum for male and female trainee teachers (see More, 1992). Yet others have compared the past to the present in order to understand the historical basis of issues surrounding teacher training today (Beckett, 2007).

Many of them contain images of the external grounds and the building(s) including internal shots of lecture rooms, dining rooms, gyms and libraries and in residential colleges, the student quarters, all of which give a sense of the size and the financial status of the colleges.  Students too are often photographed, usually as a cohort with their tutors.  These images can tell us a lot about ratio of male/female students in any particular year and sometimes their nationalities (some colleges offered places to students from the colonies –  later the Commonwealth).

When using these teacher training college histories as source material for research, it is important to evaluate them by understanding the background of the author and considering the biases s/he may bring, why the history was written, and who published the history.  Writing about university histories, Malcolm Tight (2003, pp. 141-2) states that they share some common characteristics:

They typically focus on the steady, chronological expansion and successes …presenting their history as an inevitable progress towards the glorious present (almost as if other outcomes were not possible). They tend to stress the [institution’s] uniqueness, while ignoring or downplaying the achievements of other similar institutions. The tone of writing is usually one of measured, factual and quietly enthusiastic reportage. While many aspects of [institutional] life may be discussed, the dominant perspective tends to be that of … management…. Such histories also tend to lack a critical perspective, particularly when they come to deal with more recent periods; that is, the period of time in which the sponsors of the history work.

There is much truth in this and many of the older histories are guilty of this bias for they are often authored by ex-students, staff or members of the management or governing body. They attempt to portray the positive aspects of an institution as many are ‘official’ anniversary editions which focus on the successes and suppress any difficulties the institution may have faced – except perhaps the financial ones that are imposed by central or local government. The title of this blog post comes from one of the college histories by Charles More (see reference below). It celebrates first the centenary of the college and then the next fifty years when the college was moving towards a merger. However, despite these shortcomings, there is much to be gained from using these as historical sources themselves – as Dr. Barry Blade has demonstrated in his use of school histories. Additionally, these histories provide information that may not be available to scholars outside the institution especially if the original records no longer exist, only partially exist or if a researcher is unable to travel to the institution to access the archive.

If you want to use the collection, please contact the UCL Institute of Education Library via email at or


Beckett, L. (2007). City of Leeds Training College: Continuity and Change 1907-2007. Leeds: Leeds Metropolitan University.

Blades, B. (2015). Roll of Honour: Schooling and the Great War 1914-1919. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military

Dent, H.C. (1977). The Training of Teachers in England and Wales, 1800-1975. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

More, C. (1992) A Splendid College: An Illustrated History of Teacher Training in Cheltenham, 1947-1900. Cheltenham: Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.

More, C. (1992). The Training of Teachers, 1847-1947: A History of the Church Colleges at Cheltenham. London: Hambledon Press.

Robinson, W. (2004). Power to Teach: Learning Through Practice. London: Routledge.

Tight, M. (2003). Researching Higher Education. Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
Posted in Special Collections | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Make the Christmas story unfold – literally!

When the festive decorations go up, many of you will remember all those happy hours of their childhood when they got shiny baubles and cut-out angels out of their boxes, fashioned stars out of transparent paper for the windows or assembled pendants of gilded walnut shells for the fir-tree twigs. My brother and I busied ourselves with building a new landscape for the nativity figures every year, using real moss and pine-cones, and I still have and use an advent calendar which I made for my parents at the age of seven.

Pop-up scene of shepherds in the fields.The teachers and parents amongst you may be looking for seasonal activities for children and ask themselves if the Newsam Library has any resources to give them ideas, both for Christmas stories and the great Christmas story itself, and for decorating your classroom or home.

Of course we do; our Curriculum Resources collection consists of all kinds of books for teachers and children. Beyond that, we have prepared links to online resources for you, as you can see in our recent blog post on games and crafts through the seasons.

But what about making a book that is a three-dimensional nativity scene at the same time? We have three wonderful titles to offer you. The children in your charge will be thrilled to get going with cardboard and paint, scissors and glue, to make one of their own!

The nativity by Jane Ray (1999) is colourful in every sense of the word: The angels wear flowers and feathers in their hair; the Three Wise Men display an ancient map and Arabic and Chinese writing on their cloaks; Mary has a long black plait and Joseph curly black hair (such as we now assume Jesus may have had). The last page folds out to a palace-like stable, and you can populate it with paper figures supplied in a pocket.

Two pop-up books unfolded to two stars with five points.

The first Noël : a Christmas carousel by Jan Pieńkowski (2004) and An Advent carousel by Francesca Crespi (1999) take the idea  further by having every double-page pop up, so that the story literally unfolds as you go along!

Each book can be displayed with all scenes open, looking like a star from above; The first Noël even has a loop to hang it from as one large decoration in a Christmas colour scheme. The Advent carousel, in turn, has 24 little flaps, so functions as a proper Advent calendar.

There is a lot of lovely detail, too, to inspire children’s imagination and integrate their own lives into the story from Antiquity.

In Crespi’s 3-D book, when you open Mary’s chest, you find wool and knitting kneedles, and her basket is filled with loaves of bread and apples. In the shepherds’ cart, little lambs lie like in a manger, and behind a bush, a child and a shepherds’ dog are asleep. Each angel is playing a different musical instrument, and the comet to announce the birth of Jesus resembles a multi-coloured, multi-layered decoration in itself.

Pop-up scene of Joseph and Mary in front of the inn.

Pieńkowski’s accomplished silhouettes will awe any adult, for instance the dramatic apparition of an angel in the fields, coming down like a hawk and stretching his hand out almost to the humans’ hands. Again, there are endearing references to our environment – can you find the cat and the squirrel? The sign in front of the inn is a board painted with three crowns hanging from a wrought-iron rod, something you could not have found in Roman Israel but anywhere in Britain or in Central Europe, the artist’s first home.

White silhouette on red background: Joseph and Mary in front of the inn.In a previous blog post, I suggested other pop-up books from the Newsam Library to study, for instance about outer space; why not emulate some of their features, too, for your very own Christmas project? If an elaborate scene is too ambitious, why not start with single objects, as Robert Sabuda does in his Christmas Alphabet? His paper cutouts are sheer delight, and he even manages to visualise ‘Joy’ ─ I won’t tell you how!

A happy Christmas time to all of you, whether you grew up with life-size nativity scenes in  churches and on squares, as I did in Germany, or whether you have never celebrated it in your country before.

Posted in Curriculum Resources | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Excavations’ in the IOE’s School Histories Collection

The Newsam Library at the Institute of Education has a large collection of  education institutional histories. These form a discrete collection and provide a rich source of information on individual schools, colleges and universities and their communities across Britain. The books and pamphlets mainly date from the early twentieth century up to the present day. Older materials, dating mainly from the nineteenth century, are held in the History of Education Collection in the closed stacks.

In anticipation of the half-day symposium on writing institutional histories, jointly organised by ICHRE (International Centre for Historical Research in Education) and FNLA (Friends of the Newsam Library and Archives), we present a guest blog by Dr. Barry Blades on his use of the IOE’s School Histories Collection to write his book, Roll of Honour.


Blades, B., 2015. Roll of Honour: Schooling and the Great War 1914-1919. Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

Until relatively recently, the School Histories Collection (SHC) at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) resided deep in the storerooms of the Newsam Library, its individual volumes accessible only by request in advance. In the early days of collecting material for a commissioned trilogy of books entitled Schooling and the Great War I was looking for anything that might give clues as to the experience of individual schools and the impact of war on their communities. The IOE Library and Archives catalogue was brilliant but daunting, listing some 1,500 SHC titles. My first tentative, but manifestly over-ambitious, request was for all titles beginning with ‘A’. The stacked library trolley awaited my arrival on the designated day and the archaeological digging and sifting process began. By the time I was ready to examine the ‘M’s, the SHC had been moved en-masse to its own study room next to the IOE Archives Office. I can only assume that I was not the only researcher who had stumbled across this veritable treasure trove.

The School Histories Collection  consists of hundreds of monographs of individual British schools, covering a range of institutions spanning the educational spectrum. The voluminous histories of elite public schools stand next to brief studies of charity schools for waifs and strays. Publications marking the centenaries of ancient grammar schools are shelved next to accounts of elementary schools which no longer exist or have been absorbed into other institutions. A school’s place in the hierarchy of schooling is generally mirrored by the status of the publishing house which was commissioned to tell its story. Many of these histories – the vast majority relating to English, Welsh and Scottish institutions – were written by alumni: former pupils, teachers (especially retired Deputy Headteachers) and governors determined to place on record the distinctive development and particular achievements of their alma mater.

It is easy for the outsider to criticise the esoteric, celebratory and partisan nature of these histories. The great majority were intended primarily for the school community itself. Few beyond the immediate community would identify the school in question from headline titles such as Where the Fat Black Canons Dined, Further Up Stephen’s Brae, or Hyacinths and Haricot Beans. Subtitles were generally more informative. These histories were aimed predominantly at a readership already familiar with the institution, namely the ‘Old Boys’ or the ‘Old Girls’. An institutional history might cover hundreds of years, but in most there will be at least one section for the alumnus which refers to their particular period of attendance and school life as they experienced it. Headteachers inevitably dominate the story. The tenures of these deified – and very occasionally demonised – individuals commonly provide a chronological structure to a story of growth and development. Teachers, and especially those with nicknames deriving from their idiosyncratic mannerisms or behaviour, are fondly remembered. Heroic deeds on the playing field and battlefield are fixed in print and validate memories of achievement and loss. Narrative triumphs over analysis.

Yet, what may at first appear to be the greatest weaknesses of published school histories is, for the historian investigating the history of education more generally, their greatest strength. The rich detail, the human stories and the relatively obscure anecdotage contained therein tell us so much about the ethos, culture and formative traditions of individual institutions. These ‘secondary’ sources thus become a form of ‘primary’ material when the researcher asks questions relating to continuity and change and similarity and difference in any given period or aspect of schooling. Many of the histories were, of course, constructed using primary sources, their authors making full use of the archive material still retained by many institutions. School logbooks, magazines, headteachers’ annual reports, governors’ minutes, the records of alumni organisations, and ephemera including school photographs and fixture lists are the real archival treasures upon which these broader accounts are based.

Roll of Honour, the first book in the Schooling and the Great War trilogy, includes material from over one hundred such histories and drew ideas and inspiration from many more. Wherever possible I used extracts which were evidently drawn directly from the institutional archives. Other material was subjected to the usual tests of authenticity, accuracy and reliability. School histories vary considerably in their coverage of national events. This was particularly noticeable when searching for references to the Great War of 1914 to 1919. A few histories cover the wartime years in detail. In others, there is little or no reference at all to the impact of the war on the daily life of the school or even to the conflict in general. In many, the wartime experiences of alumni take centre stage. Taken collectively, however, these histories formed a major component of my research; an evidence base which could be cross-referenced and triangulated with material from other archival collections, official publications, newspapers, contemporary autobiographies, printed secondary works and digital resources.

For the researcher who wants to find out more about how different institutions created, developed and maintained their distinct cultures and particular identities, then dig deep into the School Histories Collection. For the researcher who wants to discover how institutional imperatives tempered directives from national and local authorities, or how schools responded to national and local economic and social circumstances, then test your hypotheses in the School Histories Collection. For those of you who are historians of the school curriculum, or teachers and teaching methods, or pupil origins and destinations – or indeed any given period or particular aspect of British schooling – I can assure you that delving into the School Histories Collection will be most rewarding.

Barry Blades

Posted in History of Education, Library and Archives, Special Collections | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“Whip top! Whip top!”: play throughout the seasons… and times

How would you find out about games and toys in former times? Are there instructions for families on how to make a spinning top or a rag doll? Are there essays on the origin of obscure nursery rhymes? And were outdoor pastimes of young and old captured in images centuries ago?

Drawing of three spinning tops.On cataloguing older books at the Newsam Library (UCL Institute of Education), I was struck by a work following games and folklore through the cycle of the year.

The author displays great learning when he refers back to Romans and Celtic literature and mythology; and he grasps the reader’s attention on every page with delightful historical pictures or quaint little songs, including dialect or Gaelic versions. “Whip top! Whip top! Turn about and never stop!”

Children’s games throughout the year (1949/1976) by Leslie Daiken will tell you as much about everyday life and festive tides of the European past as about children’s games and songs. Where was it that ‘Flour of England, fruit of Spain met … tied round with a string’? In a Christmas pudding!

The same author’s work Children’s toys throughout the ages (1953) abounds with background information and illustrations.

Colour photograph of Victorian toys, including a board game and ‘carpet bowls’.An up-to-date theory and history of play just came onto the shelves: The Routledge international handbook of early childhood play (2017) covers many areas of the world.

To share the history of play with children, just walk to the Curriculum Resources shelves at the Newsam Library and have a look in the ‘790’ range. There and nearby, at ‘745’, you will also find ideas for toy-making!

The Seasonal projects series follows Daiken’s approach in linking the seasons and their traditions to appropriate activities. Projects for autumn, for example, deals with autumn leaves, harvest and hibernation as well as Martinmas, Thanksgiving Day and Diwali.

For online teaching resources, head to our LibGuide on Open Education Resources (OER). You can find, for instance,  inspiration and even templates about the yearly cycle at Teaching Ideas. For poems about the seasons, their features and their fests – in print and audio formats – listen in at Children’s Poetry Archive.

 Half a page with suggestions for play in the month of March and a nature scene.

Leslie Daiken (1953) devotes a chapter to “Toys that teach” but explains that toys, however simple, always teach – and on the other hand exist above all for the “Spirit of Fun”! In the same vein, Bruce D. Perry (2001) reminds teachers in his brief online article The importance of pleasure in play: “Play, more than any other activity, fuels healthy development of children. […] If it isn’t fun, it isn’t play.”

Illustrations from ‘Children’s games throughout the year’ and ‘Children’s toys throughout the ages’ by Leslie Daiken.

Posted in Curriculum Resources, History of Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

IBBY’s Silent Books: Wordless picture books speak loud in the library

1709 Silent books main shelfIf you visited the library during September you will have seen, just beyond the Help Point desk, an array of children’s picture books displayed face on. They were of all shapes and sizes, from miniature to massive, and represented many styles of illustration from trendy retro-looking block prints to soft watercolours and bright collages. Some opened right to left and some left to right, and they had titles in a variety of languages and several different scripts.

But open them up and the differences faded. Suddenly what was striking was what united them – no words.

These books formed IBBY’s touring exhibition Silent Books: Final Destination Lampedusa (Libri Senza Parole: Destinazione Lampedusa). The exhibition resulted from a project in 2013 to create a library on Lampedusa for both Italian children and the children from other countries arriving across the Mediterranean. In view of the many languages spoken, a collection of wordless books could clearly not be more appropriate, and IBBY Italia put out a call to IBBY branches around the world for the best wordless picture book publishing from their countries. A member of the jury responsible for selecting the books, Sophie Van der Linden, comments:

No form of reading is more universal and at the same time more personal than a picture story. You have to have seen kids pick up these books over and over again and comment on them with their friends, taking pride in pointing out hidden details and the way things logically follow on from one another; and above all, you have to have experienced the fabulous silence that surrounds them when they read this kind of book, to really believe it. Source

1709 Silent books in boxWhen the books arrived at the IOE in two grey boxes there was already a story to read. The labels on the boxes, like those on a battered suitcase, told of their most recent travels, from Belgium, Dublin and Newcastle. The books had a well-loved look to them; some a little battered with a few repairs here and there, which spoke even more about their history and the previous readers who had handled and learnt from them.

Some might think that the idea of a book without words is a contradiction, but as these books demonstrated in so many different ways, an absence of words does not mean an absence of plot or characters. Pictures can tell stories powerfully, sometimes even two stories at the same time like the delightful Bramenjam (Blackberry Jam) where a couple’s quest to produce their own jam takes place in the main image, while another story happens in a picture frame on the wall.

IOE’s Sue McGonigle has recently written about the value of wordless picture books in the classroom for publisher Tiny Owl:

One of the reasons for the increased popularity of wordless picture books is the development of a broader view of what reading is, what can be read and what it means to be literate in the 21st century. It is now widely recognised that we read pictures as well as words and that illustrations can communicate ideas and tell stories very powerfully. Source

Mariella Bertelli, librarian and storyteller with experience from Lampedusa and coordinator of the Silent Books tour in Canada, lists some of the ways these books can be used:

The wordless books generate an interest in exploring what a story can be. I discovered that the stories can:

  • Tell a tale with a beginning, middle and an end
  • Be playful and open the way for games, improvisation and guessing
  • Prompt discussions about diversity, differences and new perspectives
  • Throw up new words, sentences, associations
  • Pave the way for imaginative journeys
  • Inspire interpretations and discussions about art and illustrations         Source

1709 Silent books staff by shelvesDuring the month they were with us the Silent Books attracted much attention. In addition to being browsed by library users they were the focus of a student book group visit and a staff book group session where members chose a title that appealed to them and presented it to the rest of the group. The books also formed the core of the first session for our PGCE Primary Children’s Literature Specialism where they were greeted with great enthusiasm. Students looked at the books in small groups and chose one to present to the class. For some of the books this was easier than for others – some had a clear and simple narrative like the delightful story of a pig trying to have a bath in the midst of a very troublesome family (La Porte (The Door) by Michel Van Zeveren), whereas others contained a more complex tale like Suzy Lee’s Mirror, where a little girl’s joyously dancing reflection discovers a life of its own and the mirror has to be broken for order to be restored. In some cases there was a distinctly surreal storyline, where readers are likely to interpret different tales, like Bente Olesen Nyström’s Hr. Alting (Mr Everything).

1709 Silent books pgce cropped1709 Silent books pgce close up cropped

Some of the books were loved for their characters – the black and white cat who follows a red flying fish from cover to cover in Il Mare (The Sea) by Marianne Dubuc was a particular favourite. Others were picked out for the way they played with the structure of the book, like Hamin va Hamaan (Both This and That) where flaps allowed images to change or Jeannie Baker’s Mirror where the passage of a day is depicted in Baker’s wonderful trademark collages, one version showing an Australian family and opening right to left, while bound with it and opening left to right is a parallel story set in Morocco.

The exhibition also received a visit from UCL’s MA in Library and Information Studies students (amongst them students from school and public library backgrounds) and later in the term, inspired by the exhibition, a collection of our own wordless picture books will be visiting a BA Education Studies class working on film making. Many of the wordless picture books have much to demonstrate about how framing and points of view in still images contribute to storytelling. Shaun Tan’s remarkable The Arrival is one – it must be said particularly brilliant – example.

At the end of September the books went back into their grey boxes to wing their way to Cambridge, and at the end of the year they apparently leave the country for more distant travels. But it feels as though their impact will live on, in an understanding that books without words can actually tell a very loud story, and that stories, and the physical books that contain them, can cross boundaries both geographical and cultural. If you would like to know more about the project please see the IBBY Silent Books website. Full details of the Silent Books referred to are listed here. If you would like to explore the wordless picture books held in our own Curriculum Resources collection please go to UCL Explore and use the search term ‘stories without words’.

Posted in Library and Archives | Leave a comment