When books are “rare”

September 11, 2013

Beyond the Museum of Civilization’s public exhibition galleries additional treasures abound. The Museum’s reserves and workshops overflow with artifacts and specimens that not only enrich the collections, but also provide curators with outstanding research tools. The rare-book collection, for example, is a veritable treasure trove of printed material documenting Canada’s history.

Imagine rows of shelving on which you can find everything from a 17th-century recipe book to a catalogue of all the trees in North America (presented in a boxed set complete with wood samples), as well as Tommy Douglas’s Bible, and a beautifully preserved copy of the Refus global manifesto. These are but a few of the 2,500 surprising documents kept in a small room at the back of the Museum’s library.

As you step through the door, you enter another world. Storage conditions — temperature, air quality and relative humidity — are strictly controlled. A pair of white cotton gloves has pride of place on a small table at the entrance. Donning the gloves is not a requirement if your hands are clean, although some people still do it anyway. And an old-fashioned lead pencil is always used instead of a pen, because ink can stain your fingers, which in turn can stain the books.

But why are these rare books at the Museum of Civilization, rather than, say, at Library and Archives Canada? “Because we need to document our collections,” explains Brigitte Lafond, Manager of Information Management at the Museum. “Historians and curators find important information here when they conduct research or prepare exhibitions. Some of these documents are even included in those exhibitions. Books are also artifacts. And they have emotional value.”

Lafond admits that she herself has gone through the recipes in the book Directions diverses données en 1878 par la Révérende mère Caron alors supérieure générale des sœurs de charité de la Providence pour aider ses sœurs à former de bonnes cuisinières (“Various instructions issued in 1878 by Reverend Mother Caron while Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Providence to help the sisters train good cooks”). Published in 1891, this small recipe book is one of the earliest culinary arts manuals in Canada. According to Lafond, “It provides information on the important role nuns played in the general education of young women, as well as information on what people ate at the time.”

With documents such as these, the Museum of Civilization’s rare-book collection is clearly an outstanding resource, containing valuable information on the history and culture of the many groups that make up Canada’s population.