Babar the elephant’s special room in KSU’s main library

The Babar collection in the 12th floor of the library includes a variety of different merchandise and memorabilia. Photo by Nancy Urchak.

The Babar collection in the 12th floor of the library includes a variety of different merchandise and memorabilia. Photo by Nancy Urchak.

Meghan Bogardus

On the 12th floor of the Kent State Library, you can find the entire history of the university housed in gray boxes in special collections and archives. But if you open one particular door, you’ll find the home of someone quite unexpected: Babar the Elephant.

As the door opens, it may be boxes that first meet your eye, but turn to the left and you’ll find yourself face to face with the pachyderm himself, in 5-foot stuffed animal form — and that’s not even the strangest artifact.

The university’s Babar Collection is made up of 3,600 items, including two massive stuffed elephants. All of these items are housed in their own room in the special collections department of the library.

Penny White, a graduate assistant in special collections who often shows the room by request, said it is unusual that a collection would get to be housed alone, but the Babar Collection is unlike anything the library has.

“It is definitely the most singular,” she said.

White said she had no idea Babar called the library home when she arrived at Kent State. And like many students, the first question she would ask was, “Why?”

Babar himself was created in 1931 in Paris, France, by Jean de Brunhoff and later exported to America — and many other places — by de Brunhoff’s son, Laurent. The thousands of artifacts are the property of the late John L. Boonshaft, a Las Vegas collector.

Babar’s journey to Kent, Ohio, began in the late 1980s, when Ann Hildebrand, an emeritus professor of English, was researching about Babar and his creators. In her correspondence with Laurent, Hildebrand was referred to a man with an “extensive” collection of Babar books: John L. Boonshaft.

“Around here, Babar books are as scarce as hen’s teeth,” Hildebrand said.

Though the university’s library had a “decent” collection of Babar books, it was nothing compared to Boonshaft’s. Library records show hundreds of books in the collection, in over 20 different languages.

While Hildebrand was researching her book, “Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff: The Legacy of Babar,” she said she wrote letters to Boonshaft two or three times a week. Hildebrand said she would usually ask a question about one of the international books and Boonshaft would respond in his next letter.

“He was just marvelously helpful to me and my research,” she said.

Hildebrand said Boonshaft was strictly a collector and it would often amaze him that Babar was something that could be studied academically. It was this academic interest that provoked Boonshaft to “beef up” his collection to the 3,600 items that are in the library today, this included his use of “searchers” around the world.

“He made it his mission to get the very best and oldest editions of each book in all the languages that were published,” she said.

In the hundreds of gray boxes shelved in Babar’s room in special collections, you can find any number of odd items. Many boxes hold books in English, French, Spanish and Japanese. Others hold dishes, like plates with French painted on them or a sushi-serving platter straight from Japan. Maybe you’ll find some wrapping paper or a comforter. One box holds several sunglasses shaped like elephants and pendants and earring with Babar characters on them. There’s even a stroller tucked into a corner.

As Hildebrand noted, in America we’re pretty used to “stuff” being created with a popular cartoon character on it, but when Babar came out in the 1930s, it was a pretty unusual case.

“Babar was one of the first book characters that really marketed itself commercially,” she said.

Among the first Babar products were soaps, ties and figurines.

Hildebrand said when Boonshaft first began looking for a home for his collection after his death, he thought it might be best to take it back to where it began in Paris, but Laurent de Brunhoff insisted America was Babar’s new home.

It took some narrowing down, but after finding out about the growing children’s literature field here and a promise from Hildebrand that the collection would be the “jewel in the crown” at Kent State, he promised the collection to the library in 1992.

His sudden and unexplained death at age 37 in 1997 brought the collection to Kent State quicker than expected. Opening day of the Babar exhibit was Dec. 9, 1999, the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.

Since then, White said they often show the room by request to groups and for some of the classes in the English department. Hildebrand said she hasn’t been to the room in awhile but believes Boonshaft would be happy with the treatment of his collection.

“He didn’t dream he’d have a whole room.”

Contact Meghan Bogardus at [email protected].