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Rare Books and Special Collections collection policy


The acquisition by purchase and gift of rare books, manuscripts, and other special collections material is a fundamental part of the collections function of an academic library. Financial restraints, market availability, teaching strengths, and research patterns all bear on the extent and nature of the institutional collecting of antiquarian material; but such collecting per se is unarguably justified by the nature of scholarly research, particularly in the humanities, whose scholars are dependent on retrospective library resources in a manner parallel to the scientists' dependence on the equipment necessary for experimental research.

The view sometimes expressed that special collections consist only or primarily of pretty or precious material is explicable given the historical connection between library collections and the benefactions of connoisseurs. There are without doubt areas of collecting which, though of keen interest to private collectors, may not necessarily be of much interest or importance to institutional research collections. All the same, this view of the rare book or special collections area as a museum or sanctuary for objets de virtù is a misapprehension. The main focus of institutional rare book collecting must be the acquiring of scholarly materials for the purposes of research and teaching.

McGill University Libraries have been acquiring rare books for well over a century, though it was not until after the first World War that such collecting began to be carried out in a determined fashion. The Blackader-Lauterman, Blacker-Wood, and Osler Libraries were all begun during that decade after the war, all of them with the assistance of notable benefactors. Nevertheless certain important donations made in the nineteenth century -- the collections of Frederick Griffin, John Robson, Francis McLennan, Robert Mackay, and others -- as well as the gift of the Redpath Tracts (1888-1903), formed the basis of what gradually coalesced into an important collection of rare books, manuscripts, maps, and prints. The danger that the rare book collection should develop not so much by plan as by the unpredictable hand of benefactions was not entirely avoided, though it has become increasingly apparent that such collection building by chance and luck cannot ever be entirely eliminated, as the increasing price of antiquarian material has made every library more and more dependent on donors. Notwithstanding this fact, the rare book collections at McGill certainly benefitted from the attention of its university librarians who were willing and able to acquire outstanding items at a time when rare books were comparatively inexpensive.

The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections was set up formally in 1965, and under its direction came many of the special collections and rare books that had been acquired by the University over the decades. During the years since its formation, collection building has concentrated in the areas of Canadiana, the history of the book, English literature and history, travel and exploration, French literature, philosophy, prints, maps, and manuscripts, and a few others. Other collection strengths have not been neglected; but less money has been expended on them, and some have been developed primarily through donation.

The collections overall currently contain some 175,000 books, 12,000 prints, 6,000 maps, and 600 linear metres of manuscripts and archival material.


Collection building is based on current collecting priorities as documented in the collection policies for English, History, Philosophy etc. and on certain historical strengths of the collection as provided below. Certain historically important individual collections are essentially closed and are added to only by donation (e.g. Detective and Mystery Fiction, C.P. Snow, Albert Einstein). For reasons of established priorities, others are added to only occasionally by purchase (e.g. medieval manuscripts). Collection development by donation can take a broader view, though one must always keep in mind the costs associated with processing gifts.

Since RBD is part of the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, and because other rare book collections exist at McGill, antiquarian material is rarely acquired in certain disciplines: history of science, history of medicine, natural history, history of art (with some exceptions), music, and the near eastern and far eastern traditions. Exceptions are made: Rousseau, for example, was a composer and botanist, and the Rousseau Collection therefore includes material on both of these subjects. The Department co-operates with the University Archives and does not, for example, collect McGill administrative records. It is the humanities focus -- especially literature, history, philosophy, and the history of the book -- that predominates and that gives a focus to collection building.

The following areas represent the primary subjects currently being developed. The list is not meant to be exhaustive; but in practice these are the areas within the Department which are active, which together form a cohesive collections thrust, and which represent the research interests of a majority of our users.


This is one of the great collecting strengths of the McGill libraries. Actively sought are pre-Confederation imprints, western Canadiana to 1900, Canadian literature to 1960 (especially poetry), literary and historical manuscripts, modern and historical prints, pre-1940 cartographic material, and pertinent bibliographical and reference works.


The Colgate Collection and the Reference Collection (in part) together form, with other associated book and manuscript material, a major collecting interest of RBD. Books (both antiquarian and new) on the history of printing and allied subjects (type specimen books, printers' manuals, papermaking, bibliophily, bookselling, etc.) are actively sought. Press books, printers' and publishers' archives, important illustrated books and book illustrators, bindings, early printed books, and associated material are acquired selectively.


Acquired selectively for the period from 1700 to 1914 approximately. Blake, Kipling, Richard Burton, de la Mare, and Stevenson collections are notable, and smaller special collections exist for other writers, periods, and subjects.


Modest acquisitions of eighteenth-century writers are made, particularly in the second half of the century (Rousseau, Restif, Mercier et al.).


Hume, Rousseau and Kierkegaard are the main figures, and Hume in particular represents a major collecting interest. Attention is also paid to Locke, Priestley, French Enlightenment thought, and the Scottish Enlightenment.


The great strengths of the collection in history are in English History and include manuscripts of political and social historical interest, and Napoleon prints. Current acquisitions include political papers, military science, European maps from the 16th to the 19th century, and travel literature.


Acquisitions of new reference books to support the use and development of the Collections form a significant part of expenditures each year.


As the price of antiquarian material continues to rise RBD, like rare book departments everywhere, is increasingly dependent on donations as an integral part of collection building. Working with donors and potential donors is a central responsibility of the Department. All the same, no gift is free and donations in general can be as problematic as they are essential. The cost of housing and cataloguing donations must be taken into account, and the relevance of donations to existing collections is therefore a prime consideration. (This pertains more to gifts of collections than to gifts of single items). Ideally, collections offered and accepted should either complement existing strengths or be in themselves of such quality as to offer substantial research potential. Each case must finally be considered on its own merits.

Relation to Collections Outside McGill

Collection strengths at other Montreal, provincial, and Canadian institutions influence the collections programme in RBD to some extent. Obviously it would be wasteful to begin an author or subject collection from scratch if a similar collection already exists nearby. Some overlap is inevitable mainly for historical reasons (e.g. the Canadiana strengths of McGill, the Université de Montréal, the McCord, the BNQ, and the Bibliothèque municipale). The decision whether to acquire an expensive item will be influenced by whether or not there is already a copy in the city.

The Department submits records to projects such as the STC, ESTC, ISTC etc., and co-operates extensively in the work of the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions.

Some General Principles

Apart from the specific collections guidelines which are detailed in this document, individual books are or should be housed in RBD when any of the following conditions apply to them. An ongoing programme of transferring items from the circulating collection to the Department is based on these conditions, as well as the relevance of items to the collection.

A. Date of Publication

All European imprints dated before 1801; all Canadian imprints published before 1867, and all Western Canadiana published before 1900; American imprints dated before 1820, with some flexibility by state depending on the date when printing was first introduced (e.g. Dakota, where printing did not begin until 1858).

B. Rarity/Limitation of Print-Run

There is little agreement in the literature on the meaning of rarity. Although it is obvious that any book recorded in only a few copies ought to be located in RBD, it is best to judge a book's rarity on an item by item basis. Any book whose stated or known limitation is 50 copies or less should be housed in RBD.

C. Price

Individual books acquired for the McLennan Library at a cost of over $1,000 should be considered for housing in RBD. Exceptions will include microforms, large sets, etc.

D. Physical Characteristics

Physical characteristics affect a book's value or "usability" and in some cases will dictate its being located in RBD. Intrinsic characteristics such as fine bindings, illustrations, size, and format (e.g. loose leaves in a box, broadsides, etc.) may necessitate this, as may extrinsic characteristics (notably fragility). Locating such items in RBD is best done on a case by case basis. Post-publication additions, including significant presentation and ex-libris inscriptions, annotations of importance, letters or manuscript leaves tipped in, etc., normally mean that an item should not be on the open shelves.

E. Pertinence to Active Special Collections

Special collections devoted to an author (e.g. Hume, Blake) or a subject (e.g. history of printing) may contain items, chosen judiciously, which are neither rare nor valuable, but which are acquired as part of a collection which is meant to be exhaustive.

Selective List of Published Descriptions

Departmental Brochure: Department of Rare Books and Special Collections: A Guide to the Collections, 1989.


Catalogue of the Lawrence Lande William Blake Collection in the Department of Rare Books... 1983.

Catalogue of the Gregor Malantschuk Søren Kierkegaard Collection in the Department of Rare Books... 1984.

The Rosalynde Stearn Puppet Collection. 1961.

The Lawrence Lande Collection of Canadiana in the Redpath Library...: A Bibliography. 1965.

Rare and Unusual Canadiana: First Supplement to the Lande Bibliography. 1971.

A Checklist of Printed and Manuscript Material Relating to the Canadian Indian. 1974.

The Moravian Missions to the Eskimos of Labrador: A Checklist. 1973.

Catalogue of the Rodolphe Joubert Collection on French Canada in the Department of Rare Books... 1984.

McGill University Library. Special Collections. European and American Manuscripts. 1962.

Guide to Archival Resources at McGill University. 1985.

Arabic Manuscripts in the Libraries of McGill University: Union Catalogue. 1991.

From Dürer to Daumier: European Prints from the Collection of McGill University . 1993.

What Was Thus by Chance Begun... the Napoleon Collection of McGill University: Selected Prints and Illustrated Books. 1991.

Other Access Tools

- Manuscript Collection finding cards and inventories

- Map Collection Chronological file

- Binding, bookplate and printer files

- Artist and engraver files for prints.

- Current Serials and standing orders lists


Reference Collection: General Works; Historical Cartography and Cartobibliography; Montreal; Printmaking and Book Illustration; Palaeography, Manuscripts, and Archives; Typography and History of Printing; Early Printed Books and Incunabula; Watermarks; Bookbinding; Bookselling; Bibliophily and Book Collecting; Study of Rare Books; Canadiana; Subject Bibliographies; Author Bibliographies; Old McGill; RBD Manuscript Inventories and Special Collections Lists.

Literature: William Blake; Richard Burton; Children's Literature; Walter de la Mare; Detective and Mystery Fiction; Sidney Fisher Collection; Fishstein Collection (Yiddish Poetry); Rudyard Kipling; Lande English Literature; Christopher Morley; Rilke; Shakespeare (Chambers Collection, T.D. King Collection); C.P. Snow; Robert Louis Stevenson; Stearn Puppet Collection; Western and Cowboy Fiction.

History: Redpath Tracts; Napoleon; Jaffe Collection (Communist pamphlets); World War I; World War II; Roy States Collection (Black history); Travel and Exploration.

History of the Book: Incunabula and Early Printing; Colgate Collection (printing, publishing, type design, typography, specimen books, calligraphy, papermaking, binding, fine press books etc.); Binding Examples; Book Illustrators (Bewick, Rackham, Gorey, Szyk, Thoreau Macdonald, Virgil Burnett); Stone & Kimball; Bookseller's Catalogues; Association of American University Presses Book Show Collection; Manuscripts and archives of publishers, printers etc.

Social History: Boy Scouts; Commercial and Industrial Catalogues; Cookery; Reford Sporting Collection.

Canadiana: Lande Collection; Canadian Pamphlets; Canadian Poetry in English (F.R. Scott Library, Gustafson Collection); Joubert Collection; Stephen Leacock; Malcolm Lowry; W.D. Lighthall Collection; Papineau Books.

History of Ideas: Dawson Pamphlets; Albert Einstein; David Hume; Soren Kierkegaard; Rousseau; Otto Ribbeck Collection (classical scholarship).

Manuscripts: Western Medieval Books; Islamic Books; Indian and Singhalese Manuscripts; Canadian historical and literary manuscript and papers (fur trade, Quebec history, writers' papers etc.); British political papers; Italian historical manuscripts; Travel (journals, logbooks, diaries); European Religious Manuscripts; English Literature.

Prints: Canadian; European Old Master; Napoleon; Railway Prints; Topographical Prints; Japanese; Religious Chromolithographs; Caricatures; Posters (World Wars, travel); Techniques of Printmaking (examples).

Maps: Discovery and Exploration of North America; North America 1700-1940; British maps; City Plans and Bird's-Eye Views; Canadian Guidebooks.

McGill University Libraries Interim Collection Policy

August 1994

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