Treasures abound in rare book trove

Treasures abound in rare book trove McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 9, 2006 - Volume 39 Number 06
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Treasures abound in rare book trove

Richard Virr loves his work. And why shouldn't he? As the Chief Curator of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Virr spends most of his days exploring the climate-controlled enclave of antiquity, a potential journey of discovery to look forward to every time he walks through its doors. "Hardly a week goes by without me stumbling upon something in the collection and saying 'I didn't know we had that,'" he smiles.

Caption follows
Curator Richard Virr shows off one of the many rare books that make the McLennan Building's Rare Books and Special Collections so unique.
Owen Egan

With some 300,000 titles in its holdings, the division is second only to the Humanities and Social Sciences Library in terms of the size of its collection. Included among its rare jewels are Syrian and Babylonian tablets dating from about 2000 B.C., a 1450s Gutenberg Bible and some 19th century iron presses on display in the library. "Of course, it would be lovely if the tablets were a nice literary text or a love letter," laughs Virr. "But one of them is just a list of workers and the quantity of lentils that they get."

Among the division's major holdings are the works of Scottish philosopher David Hume. "I hate to use the term, but it really is a world-class collection," says Virr. So esteemed, in fact, that there is now a research grant available from scholars from around the world to spend three months working with the collection.

Virr adheres to one guiding principle in his role as curator; a sense of the whole. While he delights in perusing book catalogues with an eye on improving McGill's holdings, he resists the urge to impulse buy, eschewing tantalizing stand-alone items to focus on building on the collection's existing strengths. "Coherence is building a portion of your collection so it has both depth and breadth."

The same philosophy drives the staff's cataloguing efforts as they try to bring their online catalogue up to date. "I could go along and pull books off the shelf at random and say 'Let's catalogue this and this and this,' but that doesn't give you any pattern." Instead, Virr and his team are concentrating on cataloguing their already strong philosophy holdings.

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