I found out about this great resource through Electric Speed, Jane Friedman’s e-mail newsletter.
Internet Archive is an organization that is working to digitize as much public domain literature as possible. One of the projects that they support is the UCLA Children’s Book Collection.
Archives of historic books are a great resource because they give us a window into the time in which they were published. When the books are children’s books, we learn not only about what these people thought about X, Y, or Z topic but also what they thought about children.
Childhood was not always recognized as a distinct “time of life.” By Victorian times it was, at least for middle and upper class children. Because of that, there are a wealth of books designed to teach children what they needed to know to take their place in society. If you are writing a story set in the past, try to find material published then. It may not be easy to read but it will provide a mirror into the world at that time.
The oldest book in the UCLA collection is from 1728. The title? Moral Songs Composed for the Use of Children. That’s pretty telling in and of itself. The Preface is a letter by the author, Thomas Foxton, explaining why he wrote the book. Following that is a letter to the bookseller.
These aren’t songs in the sense that they are printed with notes on a staff. These are poems about topics such as envy, wasted time and more.
You can view the book’s page by page or as a gallery with all pages laid out. You can also download PDFs of the books.
Books can be searched by year, author and language. There are books by Twain and Oz. Scanning the listings, I spotted a Malayalem dictionary which is apparently a dialect found in India. This is definitely going to be a fun source to mess around with.