Digitizing and Preserving Toy Trade Catalogs: The Sacred Duty of the Librarians of Play

A. C. Gilbert Company, 1941. It’s Fun to Be: A Boy Engineer… a Boy Chemist… a Boy Scientist… a Boy Magician. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

There are five laws of library science, penned by S. R. Ranganathan in 1931:

  1. Books are for use
  2. Every person his or her book
  3. Every book its reader
  4. Save the time of the reader
  5. Library is a growing organism

The fourth law is easily glossed over, but without it the other laws could not be obeyed. “Save the time of the reader” means, at its core, “make things easy to find.” Librarians have spent hundreds of years refining classification systems, standardizing subject headings, and embracing new technologies in order to increase the discoverability of their collections. If a book cannot be found, it can’t have its reader and the person cannot have their book. In that instance, the book might as well not exist. (If you are wondering, librarians’ most common nightmare is that the perfect resource exists for someone, but they are unable to find it.)

The collection of toy trade catalogs held in the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the United States. The assemblage includes more than 30,000 mostly American catalogs produced during the past 150 years from such well-known and influential makers of toys, dolls, puzzles, and games as Hasbro, Ideal, Kenner, Mattel, Milton Bradley, and Parker Brothers. Beyond those familiar brand names, the catalogs also document the hundreds of smaller toy firms that constituted much of the industry through the first half of the 20th century. Many of those companies did not survive the corporate consolidations and retailing trends that shaped the toy industry in the past 40 years. However, the toys they produced often received broad distribution and touched the lives of children across North America. The depth and range of the catalog collection provides a mass of information essential for the critical evaluation of the commercial component of play and how it both reflects our culture, and in turn, shapes our individual lives and society.

Until recently these trade catalogs were hidden from their readers, violating all five laws of librarianship. (It is rumored that if a library violates all five of Ranganathan’s Laws, the ghost of Melville Dewey will come and hide all those little golf pencils and scraps of paper that we keep for people to write down call numbers. As a certified librarian in good standing, I can neither confirm nor deny this rumor.)

In 2006, the museum received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to make 12,000 of the trade catalogs discoverable. The Strong hired a skilled librarian, Tara Winner-Swete, who would reign as “The Cataloger Who Catalogs Catalogs” for more than a decade. She created standardized local subject headings for toys, dolls, games, puzzles, and electronic games that “saved the time of the reader” by making searching the online catalog more effective. She also created thousands of original cataloging records for the trade catalogs and uploaded them to WorldCat, the international library catalog, and became the local expert on the trade catalog collection. Researchers from around the world were now able to discover that The Strong held catalogs that documented the toy, game, and recreation industries and the role of play and toys in American culture.

Over the past decade, the toy trade catalog collection repeatedly proved its value to organizations, publications, students, and researchers from around the world. Scholars have drawn on the catalog collection to support articles in The Strong’s American Journal of Play and in other academic journals. The Toy Association held a national conference on toy design at the museum in 2012 that drew from the toy trade catalogs. The Association for the Study of Play also featured the museum’s catalog collection at its national conventions at The Strong. Over the past five years, The Strong has hosted hundreds of scholars and researchers, including fellowship recipients who are recognized as exceptional national and international scholars in their fields. Researchers from as far away as Japan, Italy, Brazil, and Australia regard The Strong’s toy catalogs as a unique and essential resource.

The trade catalog collection expanded as its use increased, ballooning to more than 30,000 catalogs in 2018. To keep up with the pace of demand and growth, The Strong applied for and received another grant from IMLS to catalog 5,000 more catalogs and add another level of access (and preservation) by digitizing of the oldest and most rare catalogs.

Northwestern Products Company, 1949. Better Toys: Better Games. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

From December 2018 through November 2019, Tara Winner-Swete and a Project Cataloger, Andie Leasure, cataloged and rehoused 5,026 trade catalogs while Digitization Technicians Jordan Ritchie and Liz Hart digitized 2,337 catalogs, focusing on catalogs published before 1960. In 2020, the Library Team will work to link searchable PDFs of these catalogs to the records in the Library Catalog so that these rare catalogs can be accessed from around the world and protected against deterioration from use.

Milton Bradley Company, 1943. The Games of Milton Bradley Co. for the Year 1943. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

A brief survey of the digitized trade catalogs reveals how they illuminate critical social and cultural themes in American history, such as the rise of the middle class, the way playthings have helped construct gender and racial identities, and the impact of culture on human development. For example, it quickly becomes apparent that A. C. Gilbert’s “It’s Fun to Be … A Boy Engineer … A Boy Chemist … A Boy Scientist… A Boy Magician” trade catalog from 1941 sends a very different message about adult aspirations than the 1949 ad from Northwestern Products for “Little Deb” toys for girls that touts a drink mixer, mixer-maker, and “vac-type sweeper.” The impact of wars on the home front during every major conflict is also evident, as toys and games during these periods take a militaristic tone and toy makers often cut back their wares to comply with the demands of the military for key raw materials.

The catalogs offer an impressive record of how American children and adults played, revealing what we valued as a society and how we viewed the world around us. The catalogs comprehensively document the origins of a broad spectrum of mass-produced toys and exactly how those toys persisted, evolved, or fell out of favor over time. Through this resource, researchers can examine and analyze important topics such as how toys historically reinforce, define, or transcend gender roles, socio-political boundaries, and the perception of cultural others—specifically related to gender, race, and ethnicity. The collection also highlights marketing trends and traces the globalization of the marketplace while providing essential information about the materials and manufacturing processes involved in producing America’s playthings. In cataloging, digitizing, and preserving this collection, The Strong will dramatically increase the discoverability and accessibility of this important collection and all will be right by the Laws of Librarianship.

Article written by Beth Merkle, Director of Libraries, The Strong National Museum of Play

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