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Tag: Toronto Reference Library

Review, Special Collections: A to Z

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The new exhibit in the TD Gallery Space at the Toronto Reference Library is a relatable and refreshing take on the often intimidating world of Special Collections. Though rarely discussed, the Toronto Public Library actually has significant holdings in Special Collections. Totalling over four million holdings, the Special Collections cover a wide breadth of topics, from Canadian History to Science Fiction and Fantasy. There are numerous Special Collections across the TPL System, including: the Merrill Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy, the Baldwin Canadiana Collection, the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, the Special Collections in the Arts and, of course, the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. The Toronto Public Library has been faithfully collecting historic and quirky items since 1884. Sidenote, I have had a tour of most of the Special Collections and am proud to say that I wrote about some of these items before this exhibit came out.

By placing the items in alphabetical order, the exhibit allows for the familiarity of the alphabet book-like format to capture the imagination of its audience. There is also an impressive breadth of items on display, as the exhibit is not bound by any specific theme. The world of rare books and special collections can be frustrating and intimidating to novice users (trust me, I would know, I’m an archivist!), and this exhibit is a wonderful peek into the holdings of the TPL. Where the exhibit is especially brilliant is how the format and the exhibits work in tandem to reach audiences of all walks of life, without alienating anyone. The alphabet, paired with topics as diverse as Arctic Exploration, Zero Gravity and Sherlock Holmes is sure to capture the imaginations of younger and older viewers alike. That is not to say that the displays are infantile, or meant simply for children. There are an impressive array of rare and first edition books, such as The HobbitDracula and Metamorphoses. But the exhibit does not rely on bibliographic or visual items alone; I was delighted to find significant historical artifacts from Upper Canada and Toronto. No matter who you are, you will see something that will interest or delight you.

All in all, Special Collections: A to Z is one of the finest exhibitions ever put together by the Toronto Public Library Team and is sure to capture the imaginations of anyone who attends!

What did you think of the new exhibition at the Toronto Reference Library? Let me know in the comments below!


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

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.


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.


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!

The eh List!: André Alexis


The first instalment of the eh List! author series at the Toronto Reference Library featured Giller Award winning writer of Fifteen Dogs, André Alexis. The eh List features authors Canadian authors who have significant contributions to the Canadian literary world. Alexis was featured in conversation with Deborah Dundas, a reviewer and editor at the Toronto Star. Throughout the hour long program, Alexis did a reading of a passage from Fifteen Dogs, chatted with Dundas about the influences of his book series, answered questions from the audience and finished up with a signing.

IMG_6399Fifteen Dogs is the second in a series of books written by Alexis that take the theme of divinity in different contexts. The first book in the series was Pastoral, which was published in 2014 and the next instalment of the series is to be expected in 2017. Alexis tells the audience that the next book will be continue with the contextual divinity theme, with ghost stories and a take on Treasure Island. To me, the most interesting discussion between Alexis and Dundas revolved around the concept of the divine. Fifteen Dogs is an apologue and thus starts with two dramatis personae, Apollo and Hermes, who are drinking in a Toronto bar. It is in this book that divinity makes an actual appearance, rather than in an abstract or deux ex machina role. The inclusion and direct intervention of the gods is the catalyst of the events of the book, which is what drew me to the read in the beginning.

As a reader who is interested in classically inspired texts, this book offered much as a new twist on the apologue style of narrative. However, for others, I would still recommend the book, as Alexis has a fanciful way of mythologizing Toronto which is at once foreign and incredibly familiar. Other themes that Alexis explores in his book are that of language, consciousness, love and death. With the theme of love, Alexis explains that he wanted to explore the relationship between what he sees as two contradictory elements: love and power. He also discusses whether language makes us conscious or not. In the book, one of the dogs writes dog poetry that is quite ingenious through Alexis’ explanation (I will not ruin the surprise).

This was my first TPL event, and I must say it was well facilitated for an audience of obviously hungry readers. For more information on The eh List!, including future events, please follow this link.


003 Toronto Reference Library


And here we are at the Toronto Reference Library. This whimsical building was designed by Japanese Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama. There’s a lot to do and see here, so let’s dive in.

Upon entry, you are faced with the difficult choice of going to Page and Panel or Balzac’s Coffee. I am a tad biased, since Page and Panel is probably one of my favourite stores in Toronto, so let’s focus on that.


Page and Panel is affiliated with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which is an annual comic arts festival held at the Toronto Reference Library. There are quite a few exotic wares in this shop, including a selection of book related ephemera, Studio Ghibli books (My Neighbour Totoro, anyone?), manga and anime gifts. For the bibliophiles in your life, this is the perfect place to buy book themed merchandise. I digress.


There’s also the infamous Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. The Collection consists of items relating to Doyle’s writing, not simply his Sherlockian exploits, though those are a big feature. There are the issues of The Strand where Doyle originally published Sherlock Holmes but also his work on prehistory, faeries and spiritualism. Also included in the Collection are things that you wouldn’t expect, like TOEFL books that reference “Elementary, my Dear Watson” in their phrases and a certain literary beagle. The Friends of Arthur Conan Doyle also put on lectures, quiz nights and other outreach programs relating to Doyle and his works. Recently, they had a lecture by David Arquette, who was playing Holmes in Toronto.


Of course, no description of the Toronto Reference Library would be complete without referring to the wonderful events at the Reference Library including the Book Lover’s Ball, the Eh List and a whole host of other programs.

I attended The eh List! event with André Alexis on January 11, 2016 at the Toronto Reference Library. For a recap of that experience, please click here.