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“Joyfulness in Childhood That Goes on Forever”

For years, Conservator Julie Fremuth has taken great joy connecting school-aged children with the Clements Library. Using collection items as models for teaching tools, Julie has worked hands-on in the classroom to bring these historical items to life. I recently talked with her about her experiences. Our conversation has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

—Terese Austin
Head of Reader Services


Terese Austin (TA): The Clements’ audience has traditionally been college students, faculty, and doctoral and post-doctoral researchers. What interested you in reaching out to school-age children?

Julie Fremuth (JF): At the time, I had my own children, and volunteered in the schools. I always want to share the world with children. The process of making art has been my way to connect with my own thoughts and the world. I wanted to connect to children that way and open up things to them that maybe they weren’t exposed to.

Historical scroll panorama next to a student-made project.

Front: Milton Bradley’s Historiscope Panorama & History of America (Springfield, Mass., ca. 1868). This scrolled, hand-colored, lithographed panorama contains 25 iconic scenes including early American history ending with the Revolutionary War. Back: Modeled on the Historiscope, a painted shoebox provides the frame for a story written by a 21st century 4th grade student, with paper towel tubes used to advance the narrative.

TA: How do you feel your projects connect schoolchildren to themselves and to the past?

JF: What happened 150 years ago we can relate to today, human being to human being. For instance, kids love interactive devices. They love to push buttons and turn flaps and flip open things. The scroll project we did was based on a Milton Bradley item and is made from a shoe box, two paper towel holders, and a long sheet of paper. Who wouldn’t like it? It’s almost like magic, “Wow, I can make this thing move.” They use their hands, but it’s more than using your hands. They learn to measure, problem solve, follow a procedure, and things start to make sense.

Each child got a very basic kit. I would supply the long scroll of paper or poster board but they would have to do the measuring, the scoring, the folding, and then the trimming. It’s really fun to see kids sitting in their groupings, talking while they’re measuring. When somebody says, “I don’t get this,” or, “I need help,” you don’t do it for them, you just ask them, “What’s not working?” And they’ll tell you. “Well, let’s see if we can measure that again. Is that really five inches? Oh, nope, that’s four and a half, that’s why it’s not working, let’s go back and re-measure.” It’s really fun to help them on the journey. To me it’s full of energy and life and connection.

But before all of that, I would sit down with the teacher and say, do you have some kind of curriculum that you need to fulfill. We would talk about different types of content that could be applied to these various structures in a sensible way, and then pair the two. You almost camouflage the writing assignment from the students because they are having so much fun making something. Teachers have always told me that the kids really work hard on the writing piece of the assignment because they made this cool three-dimensional thing that they are proud of and want to keep.

TA: How much do you talk about the collection items that are models for the objects that you bring in – the connection between what the kids are making and the items in our collection or the history of this format?

JF: I had pictures of the items from the collections, and I explained to the students that there were kids 150 years ago that played with that Milton Bradley game. They’re intrigued by the same things, they’re intrigued by the flaps. I said, the same structures were as stimulating to the kids in 1909 as they are now, and some of these things were very colorful. They used fantastic printing, illustration, and ingenious designs.

The Milton Bradley model was for a writing assignment—this was just a format we grabbed from an item which was stimulating. These concepts don’t necessarily have to be used by history students, they can be re-adapted, used by somebody else in areas we couldn’t even anticipate.

Colorful children's book has flaps to change animal heads to different bodies; a student-made flap book is next to it.

Kellogg’s Funny Jungle-Land Moving Pictures (Battle Creek, 1909). Front: Students created their own flap books, using the endlessly fascinating process of swapping out body segments to bring historical figures to life.

TA: What do you feel are the main takeaways from your work in the classroom?

JF: One is exposing the kids to making things with their hands and making deeper connections with their minds, hand-eye coordination, dexterity, learning to follow steps. I realized some kids don’t do any of this at home. It is really about spending time with yourself, your ideas, getting a break from the world, reflecting, and trying to relax. Art work for me became my companion, and I needed it at various points in my life. I hoped kids could give themselves that through this process, and I wanted to help break down some barriers they didn’t know they had about it.

Second, it was a way to share things about history or about any topic, and the stimulation and the inspiration came from items in the collection that I think are beautiful and fanciful and so cool and so simple. All the great ideas come from really simple concepts. They are timeless.

Accordion postcards of Philadelphia are spread out, next to a similar student-made accordion book on Japan.

Fold-out accordion books provide another timeless and entertaining format, either for tourism advertising, as in the series of Philadelphia postcards on the right (Teaching Collection, Clements Conservation Office), or as a template for preparing an illustrated report on the country of Japan.

TA: If you had unlimited time and resources, what kind of programming would you like to do with kids?

JF: I would like to do some outreach with community centers where there might be a need. I would love to either invite people to the Library, or go to a place, to connect kids with a history lesson or a little something they would be interested in with a little takeaway project. They take it home and remember, oh yeah, that was a really fun day, we went to that place or they came to us and we did this project and they showed us some stuff they had and I didn’t even realize that stuff was around!

Going back to your question about history, sometimes kids look at old stuff and they think it is not relatable because it’s not modern and button-pushing. But when they realize, “Wow, I can move this or I’ve got a slide-y thing or a flip book or a flap book that folds into something, that’s kind of cool.” I think it does still appeal even though it’s not “modern.” There has been this joyfulness in childhood that goes on forever and helps you connect with these younger people.