The Rare Books Collection (now housed in Rare Books and Special Collections, McLennan-Redpath Building, 4th floor) contains many early printed books and lithographs, as well as 226 volumes of manuscripts. Among the early printed books published in Europe there are at least six dating from the 16th century, 36 titles printed in the 17th century and some 144 from the 18th century. Specimens of early Arabic typography include 16 items published in the early 18th century in Constantinople (Istanbul) by the celebrated Turkish printer Ibrahim Müteferrika, and a sizeable number of Bulaq imprints.
Rare Books holds some 140 incunabula, the earliest being Paulus de Sancta Maria Scrutinium scripturarum (Strasbourg: Johann Mentelin, not after 1470). The first incunabulum acquired by the McGill library was a copy of Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea (Basel: [Michael Wenssler], 1490). It came with the bequest of the library of John Robson, M.D. of Warrington, England in 1877. Italian and German printing is particularly well represented as are theology, the classics and Italian literature.
The collection holds a number of interesting Italian manuscripts from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. These include literary, historical and theological works and some archival material (primarily of the sixteenth century).
The Indic manuscripts cover a variety of languages and traditions of India and Southeast Asia. There are approximately two hundred 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).
The Division has some 1100 guidebooks. One of the earliest Canadian guidebooks is Gideon Miner Davison, The Fashionable Tour: A Guide to Travellers Visiting the Middle and Northern States, and the Provinces of Canada 4th edition (Saratoga Springs: 1830). There are many nineteenth century guidebooks for Great Britain, such as: Oxford University and City Guide (Oxford: Munday and Slatter, 1818); Ludlow Guide, 4th edition. (Ludlow: H. Procter, 1831); Black's Picturesque Tourist of Scotland, 8th ed. (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1850).
The collection constitutes part of the personal library of the Canadian poet Ralph Gustafson (1909-1995). He began to collect seriously during the Second World War as part of his work on an anthology, the Penguin Book of Canadian Verse. The collection was acquired in 1991 and has been kept as a unit. It consists of volumes of Canadian poetry covering the century, or so, from roughly 1880 to 1980. It is rich in presentation and association copies and contains most of the rarest books of Canadian verse since the time of the Confederation poets. The rarities include W.W.E.
This collection was acquired in 1969. The collection comprises some 687 items dating from the 1920s to the 1960s. Much of the material is from the United States including a long run of pamphlets by the American Communist Earl Browder. Other material comes from China, the former Soviet Union (including a series of pamphlets by Joseph Stalin), India and other countries. There are numerous reports of Communist Party meetings from various countries. All of the material is in English.
The Print Collection includes approximately 1000 Canadian prints. Historical prints include Hervey Smyth's Six Views of the Most Remarkable Places of the Gulf and Rivers St. Lawrence (published in 1760), Richard Short's Twelve Views of the Principal Buildings in Quebec... (1761), a hand-coloured set of twenty-three lithographs, Sketches in the Canadas, (1840) after drawings by Coke Smyth, and a set of four Montreal street scenes, drawn by John Murray and engraved and published by Adolphus Bourne in the early 1840s.
A representative selection of the papers of nineteenth and twentieth century Canadian authors is held among the private papers and archives. This material includes single items, small bodies of private papers and a number of large archives for both major and minor figures. The holdings are particularly strong in poetry.
The holdings of private papers and archives relevant to Canadian history are extensive. They can be grouped under a number of subjects: the fur trade and early business papers, family papers, politics etc.