Know How

The blog of the Great Library at the Law Society of Ontario

Leave a comment

Ephemera in Rare Books

Nowadays, when someone leaves something in a book, it is usually in the form of a bookmark or something that can be used to mark a page. Often librarians find unconventional items left in books or used as bookmarks; items such as tissues, q-tips, and receipts just to name a few. These little scraps left in books can sometimes provide clues about the person who used a book last.

This can get even more interesting when these items are left by someone from the past. While going through our rare book collection, we have found many interesting items left behind in books.

While items left in books do not have a specific term, the closest term to use would probably be ephemera. Maurice Rickards, who wrote the Encyclopedia of Ephemera, defines the term as “the minor transient documents of everyday life”. These documents tend to be either printed or handwritten. Most of the items that we have found in our rare books fit this description, though we have expanded this definition for our purposes to also include other transient items such as dried flowers. Below we have collected some of the more interesting ephemera we have found in our rare books so far:

Letters: Letters can provide insight into why a particular book might have been added to someone’s book collection. A good example of this is a letter written to William Renwick Riddell from Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the 7th Prime Minister of Canada. It is obvious that Wilfrid Laurier and William Riddell exchanged letters before this particular one, which mentions donating the book “Statement concerning Red River Settlement” to which this letter is attached.

Wilfrid Letter

Notes: We have found a variety of notes in many of our rare books, both handwritten and typed, but the note below has to be our favourite. We aren’t quite sure whether this note is a poem or perhaps a grocery list. It’s up to you to decide.

Handwritten note

Newspaper Clippings: Newspaper tends to be flimsy even when first printed, so it is no surprise that it becomes quite brittle as it ages. This makes it hard to preserve, though we do have some good examples from the early 20th century in a book written by Mr. Riddell titled The Legal Profession in Upper Canada, published in 1916. This volume is actually filled with various ephemera, from handwritten notes to typed letters and newspaper clippings.

Newspaper Clippings

Dried Flowers: Occasionally, what you find in books might not be something that was ever meant to be left there. The dried flowers found in an 1815 book is a good example of this. While the book was used to flatten and dry the flowers, presumably it was the owner’s intention to remove them at some point. These flowers were also in the same book where the “poem” was found.

Dried Flowers 2

Advertisements: Ads are usually tailored towards a certain population in a specific time period, so it is definitely interesting when ads from the late 1800s survive to this day. It tells us something about everyday life during that period of time. The ad shown below is from The Ontario Law Directory for 1880 and is an example of an advertisement that you wouldn’t see in 2020.


There are many more examples of ephemera inserted into our rare books, these are just a selection of those that we found the most interesting.

So the next time you come across a piece of paper left in a book, take the time to wonder why the document was left there in the first place.

Leave a comment

A Riddell in Time

If you have been following our blog recently, you might have noticed a few posts concerning our rare book collection. What you might not be aware of is that our rare book collection is actually divided into two main sections: the Riddell Canadian Collection and our general rare book collection.

The Riddell Collection consists of approximately 9,000 books that were bequeathed to the Great Library by William Renwick Riddell. (The original bequest was made in 1916 but Riddell continued to add to his gift in subsequent years.) He specified that his books should be kept together – hence the Riddell Room.

Who was William Renwick Riddell?

William Renwick Riddell, Q.C. (1852-1945) was, among other things, a scholar, historian, lawyer and judge. He was a Law Society Bencher from 1891-1906, was appointed to the Court of King’s Bench in 1906 and to the Court of Appeal in 1925. In his spare time he authored numerous books on Ontario legal history, as well as over 1,000 essays, lectures and book reviews on various topics and served as editor-in-chief of the first edition of the Canadian Abridgment. He has been described as a “compulsive polymath” [i] and “a great collector of books, his own and other peoples”[ii].

The Riddell Canadian Collection

Riddell collected surprisingly few substantive law books. His collection is of significant research value to legal historians and researchers for its early Canadiana and local history titles.

Beyond legal history, the contents of Riddell’s book collection can best be described as eclectic. He seemed to be interested in everything: fiction, grammar, poetry, international relations, astronomy, medicine (including medieval dentistry), religion and the occult. Here’s a sampling of titles:

  • A Manual of the Principles of Surgery by William Canniff (1866)
  • The Magic of the Stars by Maurice Maeterlinck (1930)
  • A Romance of Toronto by Annie G. Savigny (1888)
  • Handbook of Psychology, Senses and Intellect by James Baldwin (1890)
  • The Philosophy of Witchcraft by Ian Ferguson (1924)
  • A Manual of Elementary Chemistry, edited by Robert Bridges (1871)
  • The History of Emily Montague by Francis Brooke (Moore) (1769), which is considered the first Canadian novel
  • Epigrammi Toscani di fra Girolamo Pensa di Cigliaro, cavalier di Malta by Girolamo Pensa (1570), the oldest book in Riddell’s collection

Many of the books that Riddell had in his collection have ephemera and ownership marks. Riddell himself often included letters and notes in the books he donated. Some examples include: letters to and from Riddell, notes about the book itself, newspaper clippings, dried plants, as well as many different signatures, inscriptions, and bookplates.

If you would like to know more about the Riddell collection at the Great Library, we have a catalogue in our collection from an exhibition in 1992 titled A lasting legacy: the Riddell collection in the Great Library at Osgoode Hall, which has witty section titles such as “From Writs to Witches”.

[i] Christopher Moore, The Court of Appeal for Ontario: Defining the Right of Appeal, 1792-2013, (Osgoode Society, 2014) at 269.

[ii] A. Rosemary McCormick, “The Libraries of the Law Society”, Law Society of Upper Canada Gazette Commemorative Issue 6, December 1972 at 64.

Leave a comment

“If Jarvis had not shot him, he might have shot Jarvis”: The Duel at Yonge & College

When you systematically go through a large collection such as our rare book collection, occasionally book titles will catch our eye and leave us wanting to know more. One such title that caught our attention was the Jarvis-Ridout Duel. Upon further inspection, it turns out this “book” is actually a collection of pamphlets, three of which deal with the aftermath of a fatal duel.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

The Great Library’s Oldest Book

Every once in a while we get tired of writing posts about legal research, new books and websites, and other serious stuff, so we look for something fun to write about. This involves a different kind of research and, even more fun, getting to go down a rabbit hole. Each fact that is uncovered raises a potential new research path and rabbit hole until finally the brain shouts “Enough, stop!” This week’s rabbit hole is about the library’s oldest book.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Airing Out the Rare Books

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.

Continue reading