10 Fascinating Items from the Special Collections of the Toronto Public Library

by Desmond

There’s a general perception that libraries only contain books, but libraries have been branching out to electronic acquisitions and digital media. But collecting non-book holdings is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the Toronto Public Library has a number of Special Collections spread out across the city with some surprising items that you may not have expected. Therefore, I present ten items that I find fascinating that you may not have known were at the library.

10. The (One-Time) World’s Smallest Book – Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Lillian H. Smith Library

This book was printed by a Japanese publisher in celebration of their anniversary and features images of the Chinese Zodiac with Japanese and Chinese letters representing their sign. It was certified the smallest book by the Guinness Book of Records but has since been replaced by subsequent smaller books. Still a sight to behold though, and the Osborne Collection has a 20x magnified version displayed next to it.

smallestbook

Courtesy of Tokyo Times

9. German Pop-Up Valentine Card – Private Press and Fine Printing, Marilyn & Charles Baillie Centre for Special Collections, Toronto Reference Library

This Pop-Up Valentine Card is part of a collection of Fine Art Ephemera at the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections on the Fifth Floor of the Toronto Reference Library. There is a aristocratic man courting an aristocratic woman, and they are surrounded by an idyllic scene of lush flowers and a small folly made in the gothic style. Puts our modern attempts of romance to shame, right?

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

8. Toronto City Hall Competition Invitation – Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre, Toronto Reference Library

The City of Toronto decided to build a new City Hall to establish itself as a global city (which it is arguably still trying to do) in 1957. To find the design, it launched a global competition for architects to supply their visions to such an important structure. The result was the Toronto City Hall we all know and love (which coincidentally contains a branch of the Toronto Public Library). Take a gander at the flashy introduction written by then mayor Nathan Phillips. Can you imagine an introduction written in this century that uses the word “undulating” so liberally?

City Hall and Square

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

If you want to learn more about the design competition of City Hall, the Toronto Public Library has a great Virtual Exhibition that you can check out here.

7. A 17th Century Horn Book – Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Lillian H. Smith Library

Horn Books were tools for children to learn how to properly form their letters. The translucent screen above the letters was made out of horn, thus the name horn book. The back was also replaceable with a set for upper case and lower case letters, as well as numbers. Children were expected to trace their letters and numbers in order to prepare for school.

This is a horn book from the 16th century. The clear part is made out of horn so children could trace their letters and learn to write.

6. Pop-Up Theatre Book – Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Lillian H. Smith Library

Another pop-up item, but one that was meant to delight children as a mini-theatre. This item features an ornamental façade with major and minor characters and has interchangeable scenery in the background for various settings.

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

5. Sherlock Holmes Card Game – Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Toronto Reference Library

This may appeal to the board game or Sherlock enthusiasts out there. Parker Brothers released a Sherlock Holmes Card Game where it appears that you try to collect as many Robber cards and Sherlock Holmes cards as possible. The game promises “never a dull moment” and the Victorian women appear to be having a great time, so maybe Parker Brothers should capitalize and reprint the game?

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

4. Aesop’s Fables from the 14th Century – Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Lillian H. Smith Library

Arguably the oldest item in the Osborne Collection and potentially even the entire Special Collections. These are a handwritten recount of Aesop’s Fables in Latin, with small illustrations to accompany the text. The fables are written on vellum which is parchment made of dried animal skins and is therefore very durable and has been preserved to us today.

The oldest item in the collection, a vellum Aesop's Fables from the 14th Century.

3. Royal Genealogy Board Game – Baldwin Collection of Canadiana, North York Central Library

Some people in the 18th Century must have loved all things Royal Family. The instructions are far too complicated for this passive observer, but it’s a good reminder that everything can be a game if you try hard enough.

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Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

2. Land and State Books (Slavery Ledgers) – Baldwin Collection of Canadiana, North York Central Library

Land and State Books were used by men in Upper Canada to keep track of their property and land holdings. Since slaves were considered property, these books are very useful resources to discover attitudes towards slavery, what the life of a slave was like and to estimate how many slaves lived in Canada within a given time frame. The Toronto Public Library curated an excellent virtual exhibition of Early Black History in Freedom City.

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

1. John J. Audobon’s Birds of America – Marilyn and Charles Baillie Centre for Special Collections, Toronto Reference Library

Without a doubt one of the biggest collection of ornithological prints in the City, the images were originally printed in four volumes. Throughout the late 1980’s, it was decided that the volumes were suffering too much wear and tear and so the images were removed from their bindings and put in special boxes. For those of us who are uninitiated in the handling of fine prints or just don’t have time to make it to the TD Gallery, you can see the items here.

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

Have you seen something at your local library that you think deserves a place on this list? Let me know in the comments below!

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