Archival collections and manuscripts

Archival collections

Introduction: Archival material held at Rare Books and Special Collections is remarkably diverse and includes many unpublished works, including the collected papers of numerous individuals, organizations, and institutions.

Extent: Approximately 900 linear meters of records.

Types of material: Unpublished works (e.g. literary manuscripts and drafts); personal papers (private correspondence, notebooks, scrapbooks); administrative and institutional records; photo albums; memorabilia, and other objects.

Highlights: Merchants of the 18th and 19th century are particularly well represented, with significant holdings relating to the North West Company bourgeois. The archival collection also houses significant holdings relating to Canadian literature (including Hugh MacLennan, Edward O. Phillips, and members of the Vehicule Poets group) and associated industries such as publishing and bookselling. Elsewhere, there is material relating to political figures (including Henry Hardinge, Carlyon Wilfroy Bellairs, Noel Buxton, Jean Drapeau, and George Washington Stephens). 

Date range: Late 16th century to the present, with a majority of material dating between the 19th and late 20th century.

Language/s: English and French, with small pockets of other languages, including Italian.

Geographic coverage: Primarily Quebec, with considerable material from the rest of Canada, Britain, the United States, and various other countries.

Provenance: A considerable amount of archival material has been donated to McGill, while other material has been acquired through purchasing. Collection development is on-going on a primarily donations basis.

Access to the collection: Catalogued archival material is gradually being added to the McGill Archival Catalogue, which was launched in 2018. To request access to material, please contact the librarian directly. Partial inventories exist for uncatalogued material and are available upon request. Digital exhibits/collections exist for a number of archival collections/fonds, including The Hugh MacLennan Papers Online Project, In Pursuit of Adventure: The Fur Trade in Canada and the North West Company, and The McGill University David Hume Collection.

Librarian & curator: 


Medieval European Manuscripts

Introduction: The collection of European Medieval manuscripts had its immediate beginnings as exhibition material to illustrate the history of the book. Most of the manuscripts are liturgical and devotional. The collection is notable for its considerable range of Books of Hours and Antiphonals (Chant Books).

Extent: There are some 240 medieval European manuscript items.

Types of material: On parchment or vellum, types Include full codices, fragments of texts, single leaves and excised initials, miniatures, and borders.

Date range: The earliest item dates back to the late eighth or early ninth centuries. About 200 of the manuscript examples date before 1499. The majority of these are from the mid to late 15th century.

Language/s: Predominantly in Latin, with some Italian French, German, and a few examples of English and Spanish.

Geographic coverage: Italy, France, Flanders and Germany.

Provenance: The collection began in the late 19th century with gifts from benefactors, to which the core of the collection was developed in the 1920s and 1930s, when Dr. Gerhard R. Lomer, one of McGill University’s first librarians, launched an innovative project to create a small museum of the book and thereby present a brief history of manuscript and printed books as well as the iconography through the centuries. It was subsequently augmented by the connoisseurship of certain Montreal collectors among whom were F. Cleveland Morgan, Amy Lady Roddick, along with funds provided by the Redpath family. Since 1937, a number of significant additions were acquired from family estates, and discreet accessions have been made through purchases by library staff.

Highlights: Much of the McGill collection consists of single leaves and fragments, usually chosen for their illuminations, decorations, calligraphy or in the case of a codex for its binding. There are seven complete books of hours and three offices of the Blessed Virgin Mary, two breviaries, an altar missal, a book of Franciscan office collects, an epistle book and several examples of the Holy Bible. Music-related manuscripts are represented by some 50 exemplars. In particular, there are two antiphonals, a rare and complete Responsorial from Germany and a Collectarium from Bruges. There are leaves from graduals and missals usually with musical notation and illumination. A Noted Miscellany is a special focus. This spectacular Chant Book was produced in Northern Italy in the 15th century probably in a Cistercian Monastery.

Beyond religious texts, there are some philosophical, homiletic, theological, scientific and literary texts. Among these, mention should be made of two redactions of Peter Riga's "Aurora", commentaries on Aristotle, Bernard Silvestris' "Megacosmus et microcosmus", Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda sanctorum, significant fragments of a copy of the Roman de la rose, along with late manuscript copies of Cicero and Ovid.

Catalogued holdings: A census of this material was made by the principal bibliographer known to North American repositories, Seymour Di Ricci, and presented in Volume 2 of the De Ricci Census, published in 1937, recording just 177 items for Rare Books. McGill has since expanded and re-numbered the De Ricci list. The revised collection inventory of Manuscripts is available upon request to the librarian.

Access to the collection: A digital exhibit has been built around the Books of Hours, providing full access to the digital surrogates: Horae: A Collection of Books of Hours. Original material may be consulted by contacting the librarian.

Related RBSC collections (bibliographic): Related to the collection is the considerable number of charters, papal letters and legal documents primarily from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The Incunable Collection continues in print several medieval texts and the European Manuscript Collection stretching into the 18th century, along with the European Print Collection.

Librarian: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at], telephone: 514-398-4707)

English Literature

Highlights and date range: The collection's holdings of English literary papers are diverse. The earliest item is four leaves from a 15th century copy of John Lydgate's translation of Boccaccio's The Fall of Princes. The rest of the material is of a much later date, primarily of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Poetry, including some anonymous collectanea, is especially well represented. For example, there is an interesting early 18th century manuscript containing a version of Yarico to Inkle: An Epistle attributed to Edward Moore. As well, there are authors' manuscripts of plays, novels and short stories, and some correspondence. The following names are representative of the collection's holdings: Rudyard Kipling, John Ruskin, Robert Southey, Hannah More, Charles Dealtry Locock, Jane Porter, Arnold Bennett, Wilkie Collins, Robert Nichols, Charles Kingsley, Martin Hume, Edgar Jepson (on Ernest Dowson), Samuel Butler and William Henry Wills.

Librarian: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at], telephone: 514-398-4707)

French History and Literature

Introduction and highlights: The collection contains a variety of materials documenting French history and literature. There are a number of fragments of early French literary texts including two leaves from a copy of the Chevalier du Cygne dated c. 1300. There is a copy dated c. 1660 of the Receul [sic] des actes de tous les Sinodes Royaume de France, 1559-1660. There are also six volumes of Extracts concernant les Antiquités Françaises by Jean Baptiste de la Curne de Sainte Palaye (1768) and a copy of Henri de Boulainvillier's Essay de metaphysique dans le principe de B*** de Spinosa (c. 1700). As well, there is a variety of documents concerning the Revolution and more particularly Napoleon. Note should also be made of the letters of Julie de Vietinghoff, Baronne de Krudener, of Juliette Lamber Adam and of Ernest Renan.

Librarian: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at], telephone: 514-398-4707)

History of the Book

Introduction and highlights: There is a great variety of material - Canadian, English and European - in the collection documenting the history of the book. In addition to a number of single items and small collections including a copy of the will of Thomas Bewick's daughter Isabella (1883), a letter of Jean Baptiste Bodoni (1792), a letter of Fleury Mesplet (1789), and two letters of Brown and Gilmour (1768), there are a number of large archival collections. Of particular interest are the papers of the English book designer Christopher Sandford (c. 1926-1960) and the closely related collection of Golden Cockerel Press papers (1937-1955). The papers of Robert Russell Reid document the work of this Canadian typographer for the period 1945-1973. There is a small body of material documenting the career of Thoreau MacDonald as a book illustrator. As well, the collection holds the business papers of the Montreal bookseller William P. Wolfe (ca 1960-1980). There are a number of drawings and some textual material of the Canadian-born children's author and book illustrator Palmer Cox (1840-1924). Cox was the author of the famous Brownie books.

Librarian: Ann Marie Holland, Liaison Librarian (e-mail: ann.holland [at], telephone: 514-398-4707)

Indic Manuscripts

Introduction: The Indic manuscripts cover a variety of languages and traditions of India and Southeast Asia. There are approximately 200 texts in Sanskrit, Pali and other languages. Both Hindu and Buddhist religious texts are represented as well as some secular texts. Almost half of the collection is composed of palm leaf manuscripts (olas).

Librarian: Jennifer Garland, Assistant Head Librarian (e-mail: jennifer.garland [at], telephone: 514-398-4785)

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