The founding of the International Board on Books for Young People – IBBY – was the result of the visionary commitment of a remarkable woman, Jella Lepman (1891–1970). Born in Stuttgart, Germany, she became a politically active journalist. In 1936 she emigrated with her son and daughter from Nazi Germany to London and became a British citizen, working for the Foreign Office and the BBC during World War II and from 1941 for the American Broadcasting Station in Europe. She was engaged as advisor for questions relating to children and young people at the American headquarters in post-war Germany. Even without funds she went ahead and organized an exhibition of children’s illustrations and children’s books from 20 countries in Munich in 1946. With initial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, she established the International Youth Library in Munich in 1949 and directed the library until 1957.
After World War II, individuals actively engaged in the field of children’s literature in many countries became aware of the importance of children’s books as a means in promoting international understanding and peace. Children everywhere should have access to books with high literary and artistic standards and thus become enthusiastic and informed readers.
With this vision in mind, Jella Lepman organized a meeting in Munich under the title International Understanding through Children’s Books, in November 1951. The goal of the meeting was the foundation of an international organization to promote children’s books. Instead of the expected 60 participants, 250 guests from 26 countries took part, representing different professions connected with children’s literature: authors, illustrators, publishers, librarians, teachers and members of various youth organizations. The opening lecture by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset was entitled „The Pedagogical Paradoxy and the Idea of Myth-Forming Education“. The speeches and discussions of this conference were covered in the media worldwide. The result of the Munich meeting was the establishment of a committee to form the International Board on Books for Young People – IBBY. The committee met in Munich in 1952 and made this declaration of intent in writing. It was chaired by the Swiss publisher Hans Sauerländer and was international in character from the beginning, including representatives from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.
The success of this preparatory work resulted in the establishment of the International Board on Books for Young People, which was registered as a non-profit organization in Switzerland when IBBY’s first General Assembly and Congress were held at the Swiss Federal Insitute for Technology (ETHZ) in Zurich in October 1953. This legendary congress brought together founding members which included the authors Erich Kästner, Lisa Tetzner, Astrid Lindgren, Jo Tenfjord, Fritz Brunner and Pamela Travers, the leading Swiss illustrators Alois Carigiet and Hans Fischer, the publishers Hans Sauerländer and Bettina Hürlimann and specialists in reading research such as Richard Bamberger.
From the beginning, the biennial IBBY Congresses, which have taken place in twenty different countries, have become increasingly important meeting points for the worldwide membership, now comprising over 60 National Sections, to share information and experiences.
The initial capital of IBBY for the founding of IBBY was donated by the Swiss foundation Pro Juventute, whose Secretary General Otto Binder was elected as IBBY’s first President. In the early years IBBY also received support from the International Youth Library. However, the dues from the 10 National Sections that had joined IBBY by 1956 were not sufficient to establish a permanent office and IBBY’s activities were mainly carried out with donations and by voluntary work. The organization of the administration was the task of the acting Presidents who only served for periods of two years during the first decade. After Otto Binder the Presidents were the Swedish publisher Hans Rabén (1956-58), the Italian Professor of Education Enzo Petrini (1958-60) and Jella Lepman (1960-62). A notable professionalization of IBBY and an extension of membership were achieved during the presidency of Richard Bamberger in Vienna (1962-66). In addition, the publication of IBBY’s quarterly journal Bookbird, edited by Jella Lepman, Richard Bamberger and Lucia Binder, became a permanent activity at this time. During the presidencies of the Slovenian publisher Zorka Persic, in Ljubljana, at that time Yugoslavia (1966-70) and the Finnish school principal Niilo Visapää (1970-74), IBBY had grown to such an extent that it was no longer possible to rely entirely on voluntary work. Thus, while the official seat of IBBY had always been in Switzerland, it was not until 1974 that a permanent office, the IBBY Secretariat, was established in Basel and Leena Maissen was appointed its director until her retirement in 2003.