A home for Queen’s rarest tomes

The W.D. Jordan Special Collections in Douglas Library is so large it has yet to be fully catalogued

The Special Collections Library houses over 125,000 volumes.
The Special Collections Library houses over 125,000 volumes.
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Beyond the Queen’s University Library’s impressive general collection, it houses an equally impressive Special Collections section.

Located on the second floor of Douglas Library, The W.D. Jordan Special Collections Library contains 125,000 volumes of printed material from deerskin-bound bibles to recently published special editions of classic works accumulated since its establishment in 1964.

An invaluable resource to researchers and scholars alike, few undergraduates are nonetheless aware of its existence.

Although it houses some of the University’s oldest books, Queen’s Special Collections is a relatively recent addition to the library system. It was given its own space in 1966, after a renovation to Douglas Library more than doubled the library’s holding capacity. Douglas itself was Queen’s first library, built in 1923.

Acting head of the W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library Barbara Teatero said some of the library’s materials—like the 19th-century British pamphlets collection—garner international attention.

“A decision was taken to establish a special collections that would bring together material such as was held at that time that fell into these categories and also building on the gifts that were made over a long period of time by Lorne Pierce.” Teatero, an associate university librarian, said Pierce—a onetime director of the United Church of Canada and the editor of the Ryerson press—was a strong Queen’s supporter who accumulated a large collection of Canadian works throughout his life. Pierce donated books to the university from 1925-onward. The remaining contents of his private library and papers were given to Queen’s shortly after his death in 1961. The 5,000 volumes were the collection’s founding contribution.

“The ‘Edith and Lorne Pierce Canadiana Collection’ was named in his honour and his wife’s honour,” Teatero said, adding that the collection now boasts about 90,000 volumes of Canadian literature.

Some collections, like the Bishop John Alexander MacDonnell Collection and the John Solomon Cartwright Collection, deal with documents relating to a specific person. Others like the Bible Collection or the Dickens Collection are based on specific authors or works. Although some works are purchased by the University, Teatero said many are donated. Works are often donated based on the donors’ areas of interest.

“The McNicol collection—early radio and telegraphy—came from Donald McNicol, who was a Queen’s professor at the turn of the century, and went on to become the President of the Institute of Radio Engineers Chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Publication Committee. That collection is material dealing with early radio and telegraphy, including photos of equipment and installations.”

Although Teatero said she couldn’t release the annual budget allocated to the Special Collections Library, she said the funding comes from the “general fund,” a sub-fund of the annual Queen’s library acquisitions budget, as well as interest from trust funds.Teatero said the collection is constantly enlarged and re-evaluated.

“It’s a matter really of looking through antiquarian catalogues and building up relationships with antiquarian dealers, and there are often items that are offered to us.”

Teatero said it’s her job to place orders for new material, but she doesn’t do so before consulting with other interested university administrators.

“It is very much a collaborative effort with other librarians and faculty,” she said “We really do value the involvement of the faculty who are interested in the collections.” Teatero said the library focuses on accumulating texts in the areas of the humanities with an emphasis on Canadiana, British and literary history, political studies, economics and philosophy.

She said it’s the Special Collections Library’s goal to build on existing academic strengths rather than new areas of research.

Teatero said Special Collections can’t accept all the donations they’re offered.

Staff turn away offers for gifts unless they fit with the mandate of the collection in mind.

“If it’s material that’s offered that isn’t related to academic research or opportunities, we try to redirect to other institutions,” she said, adding that Queen’s is offered a plethora of old family Bibles by interested alumni each year.

“Sometimes individuals think they have material that is of great importance and it turns out not to be.”

Teatero said the collection is running out of space in its shelves in Douglas Library.

“Space is a challenge. The stacks are filling up. We have a storage area in Stauffer library under the loggia and the rotunda.”

Materials printed before 1700 are kept in the “Dated Collection,” which houses more than 2,500 volumes. Opportunities to acquire new material for the Dated Collection are rare. The costs associated with restoring and preserving older books can be astronomical and simply too much for Special Collections to do regularly, Teatero said.

Many of the books Special Collections purchases are brand new. New books are often bought from private publishers because the Special Collections staff anticipate the text will be valuable down the road, Teatero said.

The Special Collections section is also a great place to examine physical aspects of the printed word.

With examples of the book’s earliest incarnations on display and information to be gathered on binding and printing techniques, Special Collections is a bibliophile’s haven.

Oddly, the more recent printing paper can cause the greatest havoc for preservers because acid in the pages can damage the paper over time, Teatero said. Unlike contemporary paper, which is kept in acid-free containers to protect it from degrading, earlier papers are made with a cloth base, preventing the same type of quality erosion over time.

Not all books are delivered to Special Collections in mint condition. Extensive steps are taken to preserve damaged and aging volumes. Some of the oldest volumes of Special Collections must be kept in a carefully climate-controlled roomset for between 20 and 22 degrees Celsius.

There’s a small in-house preservation system, but Teatero said larger preservation jobs must be sent away or to the Queen’s Archives, where a part-time conserver can work on them.

The Archives and the Special Collections Library often work together closely. Many of their materials are similar and their needs complement each other.

Students looking to make a favourable impression on their professors, might start in the Special Collection for some extra essay fire-power. The nine-person staff, eight of whom work full-time, are knowledgeable and available to help students navigate the dauntingly large collection.

There’s so much Special Collections material at Douglas Library, Teatero said the entire collection has yet to be fully catalogued.

Teatero said there are never disputes as to who should host a particular historical document once it’s acquired, as the Special Collections Library and Archives each have a clear mandate.

The Archives has a particular interest in written documents, photographs and correspondence. Special Collections, which also collects maps, atlases and other such documents has an academic, rather than cultural, mandate.

“There’s a definition of what the library collects and what the archives collect, so we stay within the boundaries,” she said. “Sometimes there are opportunities to acquire collections that are both manuscript material and printed material, which end up in the library. Because of its size and scope, new discoveries of old materials often take place at Special Collections.”

Teatero said five years ago an art history department professor discovered a book entitled Orlando Surioso with rich indigo blue pages. The book’s shockingly vibrant pages have become a highlight of the collection.

“It was printed in Venice in 1553 it was printed in blue coloured paper. This particular faculty member had never seen one printed on blue paper,” she said. “It is in excellent condition as many early printed books are because they are made out of cotton and lion rag and it doesn’t deteriorate, it’s very stable.”

Teatero said by giving students access to rare, historical texts, the Special Collections Library creates a different relationship between the reader and the content than is offered by online or microfilm documents.

“I think for both special collections and archives, the physical entity is as important as the content. Having the ability to handle original content, first editions and very early books that were hand-printed, to be able to see the quality of the paper, to be able to understand how the book was physically constructed, to be able to handle a three-dimensional object may make it more meaningful,” she said. “If you’re involved with doing primary-source research, the physical object becomes more important.”

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