Curating a Nancy Drew Collection: The Mysterious Life of a Nancy Drew Collector

Posted on July 12, 2022

by Jennifer F and Nancy E

The clicking of keys on the typewriter, a ghostly author tapping away, churning out mysterious yarn after yarn, bringing to life many characters including the most famous teenage sleuth of the 20th Century. Mildred Wirt Benson’s Nancy Drew was something of a force to be reckoned with – a plucky girl with a zeal for adventure and daring escapades. And many had no clue early on that Benson’s Carolyn Keene, ghostwriter of the original Nancy Drew books for The Stratemeyer Syndicate, was writing some of these nostalgic mysteries in Toledo’s Old Orchard, ensconced in her two-story home, often locked away in her writer’s room and library. The tale of Nancy Drew and her dauntless ghostwriter is one that has overlapped over the decades, many pondering who the real Nancy Drew was. Real living history in Toledo, OH, the perfect location for a large collection of thousands of Nancy Drew books and memorabilia that I’d collected for many years, donated to the Toledo Lucas County Public Library in 2019.

How does one come to collect a voluminous collection surrounding Mystery’s IT Girl, Nancy Drew? To clue you in, it begins in childhood with a spooky mystery. A tale of woe. Dastardly villains. The hunt by intrepid sleuth Nancy Drew for answers. Foibles and baffling events segue to righting wrongs and saving the day and wrapping things up nicely at the end of the mystery with justice served and order restored. And then comes the teaser – the promise of another even more exciting adventure and more mysteries to solve soon. Those were the trappings of the many Nancy Drew books we devoured as kids and continue to as adults.

At some point we transition from childhood reader to adulthood. From fan to collector, revisiting our childhood days of getting lost in a good yarn to the exclusion of life and homework for something more exciting and present. It was a time to grow and learn and figure things out and with a pal like Nancy Drew, we were inspired with that can-do-anything attitude. As adults looking back, we get a thrill remembering the good times we had solving mysteries with Nancy. For collectors like myself, collecting is a way of reclaiming that nostalgia and holding onto it indefinitely.

After over 20 years of collecting since the late 1990s, I’d amassed over 4000 items and it had served a great purpose to me but was really destined for more. It wasn’t just what I collected, but the way I collected. To tell that story about Nancy Drew and those that created her. To put together a collection of the many puzzle pieces that make up the story behind Nancy Drew. To have something that fans and scholars can learn from and study. To inspire others to collect and revisit their childhood. To help solidify Nancy’s legacy as not only an entertaining sleuth but her empowerment of kids – and adults – to go out and conquer and never give up. It’s been more about bringing history alive and telling the stories behind the scenes so they live on and inspire new generations. It’s about preserving Nancy Drew’s legacy as not only a phenomenal children’s book series but as Pop Culture icon who has inspired and challenged so many from kids on up to most of our ladies on the US Supreme Court. That a fictional character can resonate with so many for over 90 years and be such a driving force amongst fans of the series, is pretty amazing. These are the things that drove me in my collecting in addition to nostalgia. And it was the history behind the scenes and Nancy’s first ghostwriter, Benson, who drove me to research and write about that history and collect it as well.

With over 600 books published since 1930, there’s a lot out there to collect. You may wonder how one goes from 600 to a few thousand and you can find all the intriguing answers at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library. But here’s a few things you can find when you sleuth there for more details – from the regular classic series to various spin-off series to series for older teens and younger kids there’s something for everyone and each new generation has had their Nancy Drew to aspire to. From the regular books and all the neat printing formats over the years to Library editions, book club editions, and even foreign editions, there’s a lot of books to be found at the Library.

And then there’s the gamut of Nancy Drew collectibles related to books, movies and television. Always intriguing, there’s even ephemera ranging from historical documents to advertising items that help tell the story from concept to creation to marketing to distribution to the actual book or collectible. The history behind Nancy Drew is often as fascinating as Nancy Drew’s cases, sometimes even more dramatic and suspenseful. It’s what inspired me to go beyond collecting to researching and writing about Nancy Drew since 1997. Between collecting and writing, it led to consulting on a wide variety of merchandise, books, and productions like the 2007 Nancy Drew movie which gave me the opportunity to acquire some unique things for the collection.

The classic Nancy Drew in cloche hats from the 1930s, to a 1950s Bobby-Soxer and then mod 1960s sleuth with her titian-haired flip meets modern Nancy Drew from the 1980s to present day, every decade reflecting that generation’s style. Shelves hold books filled with vintage and modern tales of a very daring and intelligent sleuth and there are many exciting tales to be had in Nancy Drew’s world of lost wills, haunted houses, lost treasures, and musty old attics full of secrets, and sinister suspects. There are also many stories to tell behind the scenes of Nancy Drew and her creators and writers like Benson and this collection can provide the clues to unravel all these mysteries – real and fictional.

So, when the Toledo Lucas County Public Library reached out to me in 2019 during its renovation of the Main Library about donating my collection, I was thrilled at the opportunity to let Nancy Drew shine and let so many get to see the collection and learn and grow from it. They were able to carve out a space for it just perfect for Nancy Drew fans to visit in The Mystery Room. Located at the downtown Main Library in the children’s section, the collection has been seen by many fans making visits locally and from afar. There was even a marriage proposal to a Nancy Drew fan in the room.

The choice of Toledo for the donation is due in large part to Benson, having been a long-term resident and also having written some of the original Nancy Drew books there after moving from Cleveland where some of the earlier Nancy Drews were written. I’ve always been fascinated with the ghostwriters behind the pen name and Benson was in many ways a real-life Nancy Drew which inspired me to write about her life and legacy including an upcoming biography about her life that I’m currently writing. The Library also has some very neat historical items in relation to Benson including one of each of the 135 books she published, photos, awards, and even her NASA application to be a journalist in space. There’s a Literary Landmark dedicated to her writing career which hangs outside The Mystery Room that houses my collection. They also own the original Russell H. Tandy painting for the 1931 edition of volume #5, The Secret at Shadow Ranch.

The Toledo Lucas County Public Library – any library for that matter – is a wonderful place. Libraries are a foundation for literacy, especially among those that can’t afford to read otherwise or have the kind of resources to open up the world of reading to them. It’s a place to lose yourself in adventures and learn about so much and grow as a person. It’s a place I loved to read Nancy Drew books as a kid – in my school library. And for some, libraries are a place to visit a collection like this and open up the world of Nancy Drew and her mysterious history. Benson wrote about libraries in her last published Toledo Blade column before she passed away in 2002. Benson often used the library to research for her books. She spent a lot of time at the Cleveland Public Library researching while writing Shadow Ranch,  among others and then later in Toledo at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library. I love libraries and have such fond affection for them. Every year at our Nancy Drew Conventions we donate a full set of Nancy Drew books to the local library for people of all ages to enjoy, especially the new generation of kids. Once upon a time decades ago, and even some rare instances now, some people tried to keep Nancy Drew and similar series literature out of libraries. Libraries are all amazing and worthy of any donation such as my Nancy Drew collection, and I hope this inspires other collectors to consider donating their collections to their libraries. And that’s one reason why I felt like the Toledo Lucas County Public Library would be a wonderful home for the collection in addition to Toledo’s historic connections to Nancy Drew.

21 years ago, members of the Nancy Drew Sleuths including myself visited Toledo and met with Benson at the Toledo Blade where she’d been working as a journalist for over 50 years. It was then that I became inspired with her back story and being a real-life Nancy Drew. Numerous research trips and Nancy Drew events have brought me to Toledo many times over the years, I even followed in Nancy Drew’s footsteps sleuthing around Benson’s old attic for clues. Having my collection there for the community and visitors to enjoy makes it feel like a second home.

Keeping history alive is a wonderful thing and the Toledo Lucas County Public Library has been so supportive of that goal. Every generation has had their Nancy Drew – and they are all there at the Library just waiting to be rediscovered and for young fans to discover and be inspired by. That’s the most rewarding thing to this longtime Nancy Drew Collector.

With more than 600 books, in 13 different series, there are Nancy Drew books for every reader. Toledoan Mildred Wirt Benson (under the pen name, Carolyn Keene) wrote 23 of first 30 in the original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series which began publication in 1930 until 2003. The Nancy Drew Files (1986-1997) was a spin-off series aimed at older teens. Nancy Drew, Girl Detective (2004–2012) followed the original series. The Nancy Drew Diaries (2013–current) was a reboot of the Nancy Drew, Girl Detective series. Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew (2006-2015) for younger readers was replaced by the Nancy Drew Clue Book Series (2015–current).

Click here to find more than 160 Nancy Drew titles available as eBooks and eAudiobooks on Libby/Overdrive.

To start at the beginning of the above series try these titles:

Secrets Can Kill: The Nancy Drew Files Series, Book 1

eBook

Without a Trace: Nancy Drew Girl Detective Series, Book 1

eBook

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