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About Rare Books and Special Collections

From Mesopotamia to Montreal, the Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections is a true discovery library. Looking for Assyrian and Babylonian tablets? Medieval European, Islamic or South Asian manuscripts? Bird books and bug books? Samuel de Champlain, the fur trade or Stephen Leacock? Guide books, cook books, Olympic memorabilia, maps or puppets? Rare Books and Special Collections is the place to begin your search. The McGill Library began collecting rare materials in the 1850s, and through gift and purchase the holdings now constitute rich and highly diverse research collections.

These collections actively support the teaching, learning and research needs of McGill students and faculty from all disciplines, and the wider scholarly community. A research grant for visiting scholars, jointly administered with the Burney Centre, supports the study of the Burney family. Materials, all of which are used only on-site, may be consulted by the general public.

The primary holdings are in the humanities and social sciences however they also encompass the rare book collections of the former Blacker-Wood Library of Biology, the Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, the Islamic Studies Library and the Macdonald Campus Library. The John Bland Canadian Architecture Collection is part of the collection. In many cases, the rare book and special collections in the Marvin Duchow Music Library, the Nahum Gelber Law Library and the Osler Library of the History of Medicine complement and supplement the holdings of the Rare Books collection.

Collection description

The humanities and social sciences and in particular art and architecture, Canadiana, history, literature, the history of ideas (philosophy and religion), travel and exploration, and the history of the book form the core of the collection. As well, there are some significant scientific holdings both in the general collection and in some of the special collections. The rare book collections of the Blackader-Lauterman, the Blacker-Wood, Islamic Studies and Macdonald Campus libraries are housed with the general rare book collection.

Collection development is focused on all aspects of Canadiana including literature, history, maps, travel and popular culture; on philosophy and in particular David Hume and the late 17th and 18th centuries; on English and French literature of the 18th century with an emphasis on the circle of Fanny Burney; and on book history including printing history, type specimen books and significant examples of printing.

The holdings are divided into a general collection and a number of special collections, only some of which are housed separately. The most significant holdings and collections are described on the Special Collections web page.

Special collections highlighting social and cultural history include the Cookery Book Collection, the Children’s Books Collection, the Norman Friedman Boy Scout Collection, the Rosalynde Stearn Puppet Collection, the Western and Cowboy Fiction Collection, and the Canadian Olympic Collection. A range of artefacts and "realia" complement the printed collections, including examples of Lincolniana, five printing presses and a variety of type specimens.

It should be noted that records for a significant portion of the holdings of Rare Books and Special Collections do not yet appear in the library on-line catalogue. For these materials, readers should consult the Library's staff who can provide assistance in locating these materials.

Some materials from the Rare Books and Special Collections have been digitized. Virtual exhibitions, specialized search engines and digital collections of bookplates, maps, prints and other visual materials are available on the Digital Collections web page.

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