This past November, my Public Texts classmates and I experienced a guided tour of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto. Situated at the heart of U of T’s St. George Campus, the collection boasts over 700,000 rare books, strikingly displayed in an atrium.
When you’re confronted by a catalogue that is centuries deep, it’s nice to have an ace up your sleeve. Luckily, Trent Professor Scott Schofield was a Fisher cataloguer in a previous life. A master of the terrain, Scott pulled all the good stuff out before we even arrived. The result was an action packed safari with lions everywhere. High ticket items included Galileo’s manuscripts and an edition of De humani corporis fabrica with marginalia by Andreas Vesalius himself.
Professor Schofield’s expertise was invaluable, but his ultimate contribution to the tour was his muscle. Playing the role of book bouncer, Scott had the unenviable task of protecting Atwood and Chaucer from the outstretched hands, hugs, and kisses of over-exuberant grad students. Without Scott, there’s no telling what would have happened to the polyglot bible. My money’s on an added bonus feature: drool from Tayo.
I’m proud to report that I kept my emotions in check, though I must admit, there was one moment that nearly overwhelmed me. Mid-tour, Scott directed our attention to an upper floor and pointed out a complete 17th century library that once belonged to James Forbes. From my vantage point, I couldn’t tell what was in the collection, but that didn’t matter; that’s not what struck me. What took me aback was the powerful presence of the books as a whole; they were one man’s life, one man’s mind. Even in the absence of everything else, these books were bound together by one thing: the person who loved them.
I scanned the shelves and started to think: which books were read often? Which books were for show? How, when, and why were they acquired? Were these books passed down? If so, how many generations did they represent? Did the books fit the man or were they merely who he imagined himself to be? In retrospect, would he regret any one of these books being kept as a part of his legacy? Mercifully, I spared Professor Schofield from the 3000 linear meters of ‘what if’ questions that were unravelling in my head. It was Friday after all, and we had a bus to catch.
As I looked out the window on the trek back to Peterborough, Scott’s words echoed in my mind: “when it comes to books, material matters.” I relived the covers and scribbles of readers – some, entire family lineages – that now, were one with the text on the page. Many books were documents packaged in other documents, archeological treasures, wrapped in historical waste. The colours, images, smells and textures were all evidence of work coming together – the perfect embodiment of D.F. Mackenzie’s sociology of texts. Now, here I was, headed back to the land of FLACs, mp3’s, PDFs and JPEGs. At home, my entire bookshelf was one Kindle. Somehow, the image just wasn’t the same.