Volume 29 - Number 13 - Thursday, March 27, 1997

treasures to

Text: Daniel McCabe
Photos: Owen Egan

Irena Murray, head of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections

As downtown denizens scurry to keep up with the frantic pace of the world outside, McGill's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections offers a peaceful oasis. Here a visitor can leave the noise behind, embrace the calm surroundings and examine the contents of one of the country's most unique library collections.

Still, Irena Murray, the department's new head, wouldn't mind if the tranquillity gave way to a little more activity.

"I look around me most days and I think of that line from Casablanca--'Round up the usual suspects.' I want to see some new faces in here."

Murray's department constitutes one of the University's largest library collections, and it's certainly the most eclectic. Among the 250,000 printed materials, 11,000 prints, 6,000 historical maps and masses of personal papers and manuscripts are letters written by 18th century philosopher David Hume, correspondence from many of that century's leading Canadian fur merchants (including James McGill), Napoleonic-era prints depicting the French leader's exploits, a 1,700-title cookbook collection and a wide selection of cowboy fiction.

While her department attracts professors and graduate students from all over the world, as well as a fair number of journalists and filmmakers looking for specialized information, Murray says the collections are underused when it comes to McGill's own scholars.

"Most of our holdings are catalogued in some way, but only half of them are on MUSE (the online catalogue for McGill's libraries)," says Murray. Many items are listed in card catalogues in the department, but if someone doesn't know about the collections in the first place, that isn't of much use.

Murray says the inadequate cataloguing "automatically reduces the number of people who make use of our collections. It's just not transparent enough and that's one of the big things I want to change."

She recounts how Gerald Friesen, one of the country's top scholars on Western Canada and a recent visiting Seagram fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, checked out the department before he left the University.

"We have a collection of books, mostly history, about Western Canada that is almost unknown. We have 2,000 volumes and some of them are unique. Friesen said one of his biggest regrets about his stay at McGill was that he didn't know about the collection sooner."

Murray is determined to make the collections better known and she has several ideas about how to go about it.

"For one thing, I want to get an active exhibition program under way. It won't be easy--some of our exhibition cases are 100 years old and they don't have the proper climate control features. But it's important to highlight what we have."

She also wants to solicit the help of McGill students. "A number of our Japanese prints were catalogued by a graduate student from Université du Québec à Montréal--it made up the core of her thesis. We've actually had many graduate students from outside McGill base their theses on our collections and they've done important curatorial work for us. We don't see that same kind of substantial interest from our own departments."

One recent exception was art history professor Carol Solomon-Kiefer who based some of her courses on the department's assortment of prints. The result was two exhibitions and two books detailing the works--From Dürer to Daumier and What Was Thus Begun by Chance: The Napoleon Collection of McGill University.

Murray wants to see more collaborations of that sort. Because the collections are so varied, students from all disciplines are likely to find intriguing items.

"We can offer internships--one of our former student interns became a curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. We have items here that very few people have ever examined. A student can come in here and make a significant scholarly contribution to her field. She can walk away with an item on her résumé that demonstrates her ability to take on a major research project."

Murray also wants to make the collections available online. Formerly head of the Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, she was a driving force behind the creation of McGill's Canadian Architecture Collection website. The site features some of the Blackader-Lauterman's most significant holdings, and was hailed last summer by Toronto's cultural tabloid Eye Weekly as a "wonderful" resource.

"This is one library where you can't borrow the books," notes Murray. Most items are unique and many are centuries old, fragile and irreplaceable. "If we put them online, though, people will be able to make use of them on their home computers. We could even put out a CD-ROM with some of our most treasured items and--God forbid!--make some money with it."

In terms of new acquisitions for the department, Murray says, "We seek some and some seek us." Many of the collections are the result of generous donations from collectors with a passion for certain areas--the Joe Fishstein Yiddish Poetry Collection or the Roy States Black History Collection, for example.

"I have the same philosophy for seeking gifts as I have for the books we buy--we have to build on our existing strengths. We also have to be connected to the teaching and research that go on at McGill. There's no point in spending thousands of dollars on something that won't be looked at."

Purchases must be weighed carefully--rare items can cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each. "We can easily spend our annual budget in three weeks," says Murray, adding ruefully that McGill usually can't match offers made by wealthy collectors or institutions.

"It was often the same at the Blackader-Lauterman. There would be items we would want, but then the Canadian Centre for Architecture would make a bid and that was the end of that. We have to pick our spots and resign ourselves to the fact that we're non-competitors in those cases."

Still keenly interested in architecture, Murray is currently pursuing a PhD in the subject. She has already earned a master's degree in architecture (and a second one in library science), and was recently awarded a prize by the Art Libraries Society of North America for her book, Moshe Safdie: Buildings and Projects.

Despite a busy schedule, Murray is crystal clear about her number one priority. "Nobody wants to preside over a dead collection. This place is a great resource and I want people to realize that."

  • Lawrence Lande Collection of Canadiana includes some of the first maps ever created for Canada.
  • Well over 1,000 books feature intricately decorated cloth bindings.
  • Together with the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, the department boasts the largest collection of incunabula--books published before 1501--in Canada. Included is a leaf from a Bible printed by Johann Gutenberg circa 1455.
  • The department possesses an almost complete set of first editions of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's works, as well as a reconstruction of his private library.
  • Canadian puppeteer Rosalynde Osborne Stearn's remarkable collection of puppets and related materials was donated to the department in 1953. The collection includes 171 unique puppets from Europe, Asia and the Americas--some dating back to the 18th century. Many of the puppets are life-sized and lovingly hand-crafted. The collection also includes scripts for puppet plays and toy theatres.
  • The Palmer Cox collection comprises original artwork by the Quebec-born creator of the popular "Brownies" book series. The books about these tiny adventurers made Cox wealthy and he became one of North America's most influential children's writers and illustrators. In the 1920s and '30s, the Brownies appeared in ads or packaging for everything from ice cream, maple syrup and soft drinks to carpeting, coffee and "sick stomach" remedies.
  • There are some lively samples of propaganda--including the Philip Jaffee Communist Pamphlets Collection which includes 687 items--some dating back to the 1920s, as well as a collection of wartime posters designed to stir patriotic thoughts on the home front and amongst troops overseas.
  • Among the wide range of manuscripts and other materials from noteworthy authors and public figures are letters from Albert Schweitzer and Boy Scouts founder Sir Robert Baden-Powell, first drafts of fiction by Stephen Leacock and Hugh MacLennan and autographs from Rudyard Kipling.

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