Out of the Ordinary: Rare Books

Special Collections Librarian, Meaghan Scanlon, holding a rare book in her hands.

When you hear the words “rare book,” you might think of an old, valuable book that’s hard to find, but there is much more to rare books than this. In this episode, Special Collections Librarian Meaghan Scanlon joins us to discuss rare books and the collection (held at Library and Archives Canada) that has grown from relatively modest beginnings into one of the finest collections of rare printed material in the country.

Duration: 18:37

File size: 21.3 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: October 23, 2014

  • Transcript of podcast episode 15

    Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    When you hear the words “rare book,” you might think of an old, valuable book that’s hard to find, but there is much more to rare books than this. In this episode, we explore rare books and the collection (held at Library and Archives Canada) that has grown from relatively modest beginnings into one of the finest collections of rare printed material in the country. Joining us today from Library and Archives Canada is Special Collections Librarian Meaghan Scanlon.

    Hi Meaghan, thank you for being here today.

    Meaghan Scanlon: Thank you for having me.

    JO: What is the scope of Library and Archives Canada’s rare book collection? How many books do we own?

    MS: We don’t actually have an exact number. We estimate about 100,000 items, so it’s a big collection, but it’s not huge. There are much bigger rare book collections in the world. Our focus is Canadiana, so that explains why we have a small number. Our biggest focus is pre-Confederation Canadiana. So anything printed in Canada before 1867, Library and Archives Canada considers that to be a rare book. We also have modern rarities like first editions or books with notable provenance and then we have, within the rare book collection, some smaller special collections, which are books that came to Library and Archives Canada as a collection. These can be libraries of notable people like Mackenzie King—we have a pretty large collection of his books. We also have Glenn Gould’s books. Some of our other special collections are subject based. We have a large collection of Canadian comic books, Canadian pulp magazines, we’ve got a collection of editions of the work of Lucy Maud Montgomery and one of Stephen Leacock as well. That’s kind of the basic make-up of the collection.

    JO: Okay. How did we acquire these books?

    MS: The two most common ways are purchase and donation. We sometimes buy books from antiquarian book sellers and then, if we are very lucky, we’ll get donations from Canadians who either just happen to have a rare book or from collectors who’ve built up large collections. Our collection, when it started, it was built on a few significant donations. The Library of Parliament transferred a lot of rare books to the National Library when it opened. The British government gave us a fairly significant donation for Canada's Centennial in 1967 and then there was a collector named Georges-Alphonse Daviault who, in 1973, donated his collection of 3,000 rare books related to Canada. That was actually what prompted the creation of a rare book division at the National Library, so that was really how the collection got going.

    JO: Okay. What is a rare book and what makes a book rare?

    MS: So, there really is no single definition of a rare book. There are a few different qualities that can work to give a book that added-value status kind of thing of rarity and most of the qualities are a bit subjective. The obvious one that most people think of a rare book, is age. It’s true that older books tend to be more rare. If you think about it, a book that is 500 years old—it takes a lot for a book to make it through that much time. Also of course, 500 years ago technology was limited, it was much harder to produce a book, so books just weren’t as common back then. Age can also be relative, so Gutenberg invented the printing press in about 1452 and then there was no printing in Canada until 1752. So a book from 1752 would be extremely old in Canadian terms, but not so much in Europe. Another thing would be the condition of the book. If a book is, you know, falling apart, half the pages are missing, it’s got no covers, then it’s going to be less desirable than one that’s in perfect condition. Another thing to keep in mind is that sometimes books can include maps or illustrations, which can often be very valuable on their own, which means that sometimes they have been removed from the book to be sold separately. So if your copy of the book is one where the map has been removed, then you’re maybe out of luck in terms of the value. Another quality would be scarcity. So, you know, rarity. I already mentioned older books which were less common, also think about first editions. First editions are often a good example of modern rarities. The reason that they tend to be rare is that a first edition of a particularly unknown author… they’ll be printed in a small number of copies. The publisher isn’t going to take a chance on something that might not sell. A good example is Harry Potter, the first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was printed in 500 copies, so nobody knew that Harry Potter was going to be Harry Potter. Also, there are modern limited editions like we have in our collection, a few books that were printed by the Government Printing Office in the United States for President Franklin Roosevelt. He would have a book printed every year at Christmas, which he would then give to his close friends and allies. They were usually printed in editions of 75 or 100 copies. The copies that we have belong to Mackenzie King, which is another quality of rarity, provenance—the book’s history, its ownership. If it was owned by a valuable person, it can be a lot more valuable than if it was owned by me.

    JO: You mean famous?

    MS: Yeah, famous. Another example of provenance in our collection is that we have a small collection of books that belonged to General James Wolfe. They might otherwise be not that uncommon, but they are bound in bindings with the Wolfe coat of arms on them and he’s made notes in some of them, so that really adds to their value, especially if you think about Wolfe’s place in Canadian history. That all leads into the final quality—which is significance. I already said a significant owner, or if it’s a significant book like the first time a significant scientific discovery was published, is one example. That significance is probably the most subjective of all the qualities because there might be a book that has great significance to me. It’s my favourite author, my favourite book, whatever, and you might not care at all. Yeah, it’s important to keep in mind that market certainly plays a role in defining what makes a rare book, rare.

    JO: What are some of the oldest books in the collection?

    MS: Well, we have 16 incunables, which are books printed before 1501. That’s sort of the first 50 years of the printing press. The oldest printed item we have is a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. There are actually no complete Gutenberg Bibles anywhere in Canada that I’m aware of, so although we only have 1 page, it’s significant. It’s very interesting. We also have a book that was printed in the 1470s that belonged to Giorgio Vespucci (who was the uncle of Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer) that was donated by the British Government in 1967. That’s a really interesting book, too. In terms of Canadian items, the oldest we have is [the] March 23rd, 1752 edition of the Halifax Gazette, which is one of the oldest surviving things printed in Canada. The oldest full-length Canadian book that we have is the Catechisme du diocese de Sens. It’s a Catholic religious book that was printed in Quebec City in 1765.

    JO: What are some of the most unique books in the collection?

    MS: Most of the books in our collection that are unique, are unique because they have interesting annotations or an interesting provenance, like the book that belonged to Vespucci’s uncle or books in the Mackenzie King collection. We also have a number of livres d'artiste, or artists’ books. Some of these are printed in very small editions of 10 or 15 copies, so those are not unique, but they are extremely rare. We also have some books in unique bindings that are bound by book artists. There are a couple of cases where we do have the only known copy of something. The Halifax Gazette that I just mentioned from 1752—that is the only known copy. Then we also have a broadside from 1628, it’s called England’s Honour Revived. What it is… is it was called a penny ballad, so this would have been a sort of popular song that was written in England at this time. This particular one is thought to be the earliest publication in English dealing entirely with Canada. It’s a song about the Kirke brothers who were sort of British… I don’t know what I would call them….

    JO: Adventurers?

    MS: Yeah, I guess… who attacked New France. This was actually the first conquest of New France, but they had to give it back. This item is really interesting and it was actually found inside another book. So when printers, or binders I guess… when they put books together they used to use waste paper to line the spine to give it some strength and that’s where this item was found. So far, it’s the only copy known to exist.

    JO: Interesting. Can you clarify what a livre d’artiste is?

    MS: Yeah, a livre d’artiste is… the translation is an artist’s book. So it’s a book made by an artist and often they’ll be books that also contain elements of what we might consider more art. There might be original drawings in them or they might have sculptural qualities, they sort of play with the form of the book. The book object itself is sort of inseparable from the content, often the structure of the book itself ties in with the content, in a way to make kind of a unique object.

    JO: Why is it important for Library and Archives Canada to collect rare books?

    MS: Well, one reason of course is the content. The content is important, it teaches us about the history of Canada. We have a lot of books about the discovery and exploration of Canada. I think there is value in seeing originals, in these cases, just as you would go to an art gallery to see an original painting. Seeing an original old book is a very different experience than seeing a reproduction. We can learn a lot from books as artifacts as well. Looking at the structures of the book and the materials that were used can tell us a lot about how books were perceived, how those specific books were perceived by their owners. It sort of teaches us about social history, the history of reading, learning how people interacted with their books in the past. Of course our collection of early Canadian printing shows us the development of printing techniques and book-related crafts in Canada over the years. So, we are also preserving the work of the early Canadian printers and artisans who worked in the book trades.

    JO: What do we do to preserve these rare books?

    MS: Well, the main thing is that they are kept in a secure vault at the Preservation Centre in Gatineau that has very strict environmental controls. The temperature in the vault is kept at 18 degrees and the relative humidity is at 40 percent. If humidity is too low, then stuff dries out. If it’s too high, you get mold, which you obviously don’t want. The vault is also monitored for insects. The lights are on motion detectors. Light can be very harmful to paper so low light is important, especially wood pulp paper because the light causes a chemical reaction with the acid in the wood pulp. Security is part of preservation too. Our vault is limited access. People aren’t walking in and out handling the books all the time, which actually helps to keep them in good shape and also not to get stolen. When we do handle the books, we try and be very limited. We try not to manipulate them too much [or] any more than is necessary. If problems do arise, like a book starts to fall apart or we have mold, we have a staff of trained conservators who can handle all of those issues.

    JO: What is your favourite rare book?

    MS: That is a really hard question, I find it very difficult. Our collection is fascinating to me and every time I go in there I feel like I find something new. One book that I do really like is called St. Ursula’s Convent. It’s a novel by Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart, published in 1824 in Kingston, Upper Canada. This was actually the first novel written by a Canadian and published in Canada, so it’s sort of a historical milestone. What I like about it is that our copy is in this cheap paper cover, it just looks very unassuming. You would never guess that it’s got a significant history to it, but it is actually extremely rare. There are only seven or eight copies known to exist. I like to show that one when I have people in the vault. I’m also a literature buff, so that’s something that I like to show to people.

    JO: Is it possible to consult rare books here?

    MS: Absolutely. The collection belongs to the people of Canada, so it is completely open. Most of the time, consultation of rare books takes place in the special consultation room at our main building on Wellington Street in Ottawa. However, [for] more valuable items we may ask that you come out to the Preservation Centre to see them, rather than sending them over to Ottawa. If [you] are consulting books in Ottawa, it usually takes about two business days to deliver books from Gatineau, so we do recommend that you contact us in advance if you want to see some. It makes it easier for everybody. Less disappointment for you and easier for us.

    JO: Where can people interested in rare books learn more about them?

    MS: Well, for collectors or people who are interested in collecting or finding out about their own books, if you do an Internet search for [the] phrase “your old books,” the first result that pops up will be from the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association. They have a brochure called Your Old Books that has some information about what is a rare book, how do I handle my rare books. It’s quite good for beginners. You can also look up the Canadian Conservation Institute if you’re interested in how to handle your books, they have a page on caring for books. There are a lot of really great books about books. You could just try searching the library catalogue for rare books and see what turns up. One book I really like is called Books as History, by David Pearson, and it’s like a long essay with a lot of pictures and it does a really good job of explaining why books are historical artifacts. Another really well known book is a guide for collectors (it’s called ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter) that has a lot of terms that you may find useful. You can also check to see if your area has a local book collector society. They might have a website with resources. If you’re looking for more general information about old and rare books, or if you want to see pictures of rare books online, you can try the websites of big libraries like Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. Internationally, the British Library’s website has quite a lot of content, some of their treasures are featured online. Bibliothèque nationale de France has a database of bookbindings with a lot of images. Library and Archives Canada has a Flickr gallery dedicated to rare books. Also, every month on Facebook, we have a rare book of the month post where we feature one book from our collection. We also have a Web page about our rare book collection, which has more information about what’s in it and how to access our books.

    JO: Thank you so much for being with us today.

    MS: Well, thank you very much.

    JO: To learn more about Rare Books and our Literature resources, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. On our homepage, select Discover the Collection and then choose Literature. On this page you will find links to all of our Literature resources, including our website on the Rare Book Collection. Also, don’t forget to check our blog, thediscoverblog.com, for more rare books and literature content. You can find the content quickly by selecting Literature from the category list on the right side of the Web page.

    Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guest today, Meaghan Scanlon.

    For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts. From this page, you can also view the Rare Books Flickr album found under related links.


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