Airing Out the Rare Books

Rare books from the Library of Congress

As a library, we often highlight the shiny new books we acquire and neglect those books that have been here for years, perhaps even over a hundred years.

Established in 1826, the Great Library has quite a collection of older books and documents. What might come as a surprise to some frequent users of the library is that there is a small room only accessible to library staff that contains our rare book collection. While the room is staff only, avid bibliophiles and researchers may request items to be retrieved from this collection for study in the library.

The Great Library does not currently collect rare books, and so the contents of this collection has not changed much over the past years. A great many of these books were donated by prominent members of the legal profession back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Signatures or bookplates found in our rare books feature notable names such as John Beverley Robinson, Robert Baldwin, and William Riddell. While the subject matter of many of these donations may seem somewhat out-of-place in a 21st century legal practitioners’ library, the provenance, or history, of the book as an object often provides insight into the history of the legal profession and the Law Society in Ontario. For example, we have beautiful 17th century copies of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. While these types of classic texts were often used as a basis for bar examinations during the 19th century, they are not so relevant to the current law student.

We are now working on a project to clean and assess the condition of our rare books, so that we may continue to preserve them for future research. In doing this work, we have come across quite a few interesting books. Occasionally it’s not even the subject matter of the book that is most interesting, but what has been added by the owners. So far we’ve found letters from the Library of Parliament, dried flowers, beautifully illustrated maps, and tons of signatures and dedications. Stay tuned in the coming months for blog posts that highlight some of the fascinating rare books we have in our collection.