NEW BEDFORD — For decades, and eventually a century, a 70-volume collection of leather-bound books sat in the attic of the city’s old school administration building at 166 William. St. gathering dust and cobwebs but otherwise completely undisturbed.

By their covers, the books look just like those archival books that the city keeps as public records and research material.

But these books weren’t written by adults. They were written by children to preserve a moment, much like a handprint in the concrete of a newly poured sidewalk.

Arthur Motta, the School Department’s community liaison, has been using a lot of spare time “just scratching the surface” about what is in these precious books.

A few weeks ago, he had climbed a ladder to the attic of the William Street building to see if it were true that some bound volumes of unknown description were there, as he had been told years ago. It was a pleasant surprise, then, that he discovered the children’s work when the books were brought down and put in his temporary custody at the old high school on County Street.

The books are the recollection of children about history, geography, language, art, literature and composition. The books have preserved hundreds, if not thousands, of the best work of New Bedford’s best students.

The goal at the time was to assemble a highly impressive collection of this work and put it on display alongside other communities’ work at the St. Louis world’s fair in 1904, the Louisiana Purchase celebration, and then the next year at the Portland, Oregon world’s fair.

The United States was riding high in those years, and the fairs, or expositions, among other things, showcased the prosperity that a good education can nurture. About 30 communities joined the state’s exhibit in the massive but temporary “palace of education,” and New Bedford is said to be one of the most impressive.

“It’s the connection, the nexis between a city’s population and its economic vitality,” said Motta.

Perhaps it’s the penmanship that most tellingly reveals the changes schools have gone in Massachusetts.

Together writh rote learning, memorization, mathematics and formulaic essays about literature and history, the quality penmanship achieved by some of the children is remarkable, almost calligraphy. Cursive writing is becoming a lost art, and most people today — not just students — couldn’t hold a candle to their ancestors when it comes to penmanship.

Motta, a student of history, is carefully examining the pages that make up what he calls”the collection.”

One thing he finds remarkable is that the work is mainly that of children from the city’s more prominent families — Allen, Barnet, Howland, Isherwood, Tripp and others.

Janice Hodson, art curator at the New Bedford Free Public Library, said, “Notice that these families sent their children to the public schools.”

Now that the books have been unearthed from their hiding place, a question soon arises: What now?

Lori Goodman, the special collections librarian for New Bedford, said that at the very least the book needs to be conserved and repaired, then indexed and catalogued.

Goodman said that she would be glad to take custody of the books and begin making plans for researchers to dig into the collection without damaging the pages.’”This is original source material,.” said Motta happily. Nothing stands in the way of people today getting a long glimpse of what education looked like in 1904.Motta points out that the School Department owns the books and the School Committee would have to approve before the books go to another custodian. Goodman said that the library already maintains some of the old school records and could easily absorb the latest discovery.

They are not going back to that attic, though, but the conditions there have preserved the volumes well: a dry space, no handling, only extremes of hot and cold. The low-acid paper used at the time completes that preservation until this point, said Goodman.

Goodman said a likely early step will be to digitize the collection through the city’s participation in the Digital Commonwealth project, which has the ability to scan bound volumes.

The collection is apparently unique in the state. Elsewhere the work has gone by the wayside, with one generation after another sorting through children’s work and either throwing much of it away or keeping some of it in scrapbooks.

Whoever squirreled these volumes away is owed a debt of gratitude by the descendants of the children and the community.

Follow Steve Urbon on Twitter @SteveUrbonSCT