A Tale of Washington’s Irvin

By Peggy Sullivan

A three-story red brick house in midtown Washington serves as way-station to a collection of first editions of children’s books, manuscripts, illustrations, and many other related items. All these materials are forwarded in time to the University of Minnesota. Here they become a part of the Kerlan Collection, housed in its own room in the main library of the University. And the station-master is Irvin Kerlan, a doctor of medicine who earned his degrees at the University to which these materials continue to be shipped. Dr. Kerlan holds a responsible position in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where his professional daily work is far removed from the hobby he began after a restricting major illness.

Dr. Kerlan’s leisure-time activity now would be a full-time occupation for someone else. Part of what he does is: record the items in his collection in a complex cross-index; note the ones being sent on to Minnesota; write letters of encouragement to authors and artists and seek their autographs; serve as a guiding spirit to the Washington Children’s Book Guild of which he was an early member; and try in every way in his power to further the cause of children’s literature in this country and abroad.

Ever-widening circles of interest can be traced in the growth of this collection. Authors and artists who first heard of Dr. Kerlan when he wrote to ask them to autograph a new book have become his friends and now take pride in noting in their biographical sketches that they are “represented in the Kerlan Collection.” The collection has bestowed its own prestige on the artists who helped it grow. It is possible to see, too, the increasing warmth of friendship and respect as authors and artists who first signed their names on title pages have endowed later works with warm inscriptions like Beth and Joe Krush’s in Elizabeth Enright’s Gone-Away Lake (Harcourt): “To Washington’s Irvin — world’s most patient man,” or Meindert de Jong’s note in The Mighty Ones (Harper): “This my book — in mint condition — for Irvin Kerlan and his collection — out of friendship in mint condition.” Because of another friendship in mint condition, Katherine Milhous presented Dr. Kerlan with an egg tree, and it too has its place in the collection at Minnesota.

And then there is the art which Dr. Kerlan describes as “making a book rare.” This happens when the illustrator does an original drawing as part of the inscription. Such books are very often used in exhibitions. In addition, many books have special inscriptions by the authors. Over one third of the first editions in the Collection are inscribed for him. Jim Kjelgaard and Charles L. Ripper have paid special tribute to Dr. Kerlan by dedicating books to him. Several anthologies in the collection have signatures of many of the notable persons whose work is included. To Dr. Kerlan, the voluminous correspondence which these requests involves, the packing of the materials for the University and for the exhibits which he makes available to schools and libraries are all part of the game that to him is still pleasurable. In 1958, a flying visit to the Virgin Islands resulted in his sending an exhibit of thirty-four items to the library in Charlotte Amalie (its first integrated show of original art from the United States); and at the same time, parts of his collection were on view in Alabama, Texas, and the District of Columbia.

This desire to share, to lend, to exchange is one of the distinctions of Dr. Kerlan himself. Frequently, he exchanges items with librarians or authors in other countries, thus enlarging the range of his own collection, which at one time centered around the Newbery and Caldecott Award books, but has grown to embrace a wide selection of contemporary books as well as notable imprints of even earlier dates. Although American award books still merit special consideration, the Collection includes many books that have received foreign awards for literary and artistic quality.

Loyalty to alma mater combined with generosity when Dr. Kerlan presented his collection to the University of Minnesota. And the University which graduated him in the first class of its School of Public Health in 1938 has joined a varied list of institutions and groups paying him honor. The Library Science Department of the Catholic University of America and the Washington Children’s Book Guild surprised him at the 1956 Washington Post Book Fair with a well-deserved citation, “in grateful recognition of his contagious devotion to his avocation…” Early in 1960, the District of Columbia Education Association also presented him with a citation, which was reported in the August 1960 Horn Book.

The devotion and purpose which have made the collection outstanding are facets of Dr. Kerlan’s personality. He is more than a collector. For three years he was an honorary consultant on the acquisition of children’s books at the Library of Congress. He was one of the first to speak out for the appointment of a specialist in children’s literature at the Library of Congress and still holds hope for the appointment of such a specialist. Well aware of the need for complete bibliographies of authors and artists of children’s books, he has sought for completeness in his selection of the work of the author or artist and has taken it upon himself to compile bibliographies. The one of Roger Duvoisin includes a unique self-portrait of the illustrator. Dr. Kerlan is currently collaborating on Caldecott Medalists: A Bio-bibliography.

Dr. Kerlan wrote about collecting contemporary children’s books for The Bibliophile in the Nursery edited by William A. Targ. In this he referred to Rosenbach, Stone, Osborne, and other collectors, and noted, “From them, we can take heart that this is a field in which there will be rewards for those who have imagination in collecting and willingness to adventure in uncharted fields.” His own imagination and willingness to adventure have provided rewards not for himself alone. There will also be rewards for those who explore the important resources of the Collection created by Dr. Kerlan.

From the June 1961 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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