Dr. Ethel Groffier (left) with Jillian Tomm, BMus’97, MLIS’02, PhD’13, who spent many hours examining the Raymond Klibansky Collection.

Preserving precious materials

A book, on its own, can help a reader understand a topic. A collection, on the other hand, can help a reader understand a subject. Such is the value of the McGill Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

Had Dr. Ethel Groffier, DCL’72, only donated her husband’s copy of a 1578 Greek-Latin translation of Plato’s collected work that was the standard text in the subject for centuries, she would have made an enormous contribution to the Library’s holdings. Instead, she donated all 7,000 books in Raymond Klibansky’s library, thus providing an invaluable resource to scholars on the history of thought, curated by one of the preeminent philosophers of his era.

“The gift allowed us to push beyond our level of excellence that we have in the history of ideas, and now is permitting projects in the same area that will enhance the profile of the whole Library,” says Richard Virr, PhD’80, McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian.

The Raymond Klibansky Collection is not only a set of books, but a resource, every part of which serves to put every other in a larger context. It also serves as a tribute to – and insight on – Klibansky himself, a former McGill professor and preeminent philosopher who died in 2005.

While the collection – built over 80 years – is singular in nature, its care and upkeep are not. Dr. Groffier contributed significant funds for the cataloguing of the collection, so that it would be accessible to scholars. Just as important, she and Katherine Smalley – a former student of Klibansky’s – also contributed to the Raymond Klibansky Collection Fund, which supports scholars performing research in the collections.

Access is as important as preservation in Rare Books and Special Collections. Its books, no matter how rare or delicate, are not in a museum. They are meant to be read. As such, if one searches “Plato” in the Library’s database, Klibansky’s donated 1578 book will appear for viewing, alongside an e-book published four centuries later.

While Dr. Groffier’s donation built on an existing strength of Rare and Special Collections, support from Sheila Bourke, BA’49, uncovered one the Library did not know it had. Bourke donated a collection of children’s books that span five centuries – from a 1571 copy of Aesop's Fables to first editions of Winnie the Pooh – which now serve as an integral research tool for McGill scholars.

“Without that kind of informed and interested support, we’re not going to go very far,” says Virr.