Treasures of the Library

Rare books

This special collection reflects the changing reading habits of parliamentarians, and what was once considered essential knowledge for a library of national significance to acquire for its users. In essence, it is also a reflection of Canada’s parliamentary history.

This section of the Treasures of the Library will showcase a new volume from the Library’s rare books collection every month, explaining its content, historical significance and place within the Library collection.

History of the Library’s rare book collection

The rare book collection of the Library of Parliament can trace its roots back to the establishment of the legislative assemblies of Lower Canada and Upper Canada in 1791. Each legislative assembly operated separately, with their own library collections for the use of their parliamentarians. In 1840, the Act of Union united Upper and Lower Canada into the single Province of Canada. The two libraries merged in 1841 to serve the newly created Legislative Assembly for the Province of Canada.

Until Ottawa was named the national capital, the Legislative Assembly for the Province of Canada travelled frequently, with its collection of books in tow. It moved from the city of Québec to Montréal to Toronto or Kingston. Each move would result in some damage to the collection and some lost volumes.

The collection suffered a devastating loss in Montréal in 1849. A mob set fire to Parliament in reaction to the Rebellion Losses Bill. Only 200 books survived. Part of the collection was further destroyed in the city of Québec in 1854 by another fire, this time accidental.

Rebuilding the collection

These two fires, in fact, would shape the Library’s rare book collection as it is today. Two people deserve most of the credit for developing the collection.

The first was Georges-Barthélemi Faribeault, Assistant Clerk of the Legislative Assembly from 1835 to 1855. He was responsible for rebuilding the collection after the 1849 fire.

The second was Alpheus Todd, who was the Assistant Librarian in 1855. After the fire in Québec, Parliament sent him to London and Paris to purchase books – he had a budget of £10,000 – and to acquire donations from the governments of England and France. During his travels, he also studied the architecture of the most innovative libraries of the day. This inspired his recommendations for the future design of the Library building. His suggestions included fire suppression, which would ultimately save the Library (and its collection) from disaster in the fire of 1916.

Alpheus Todd was later appointed as the Librarian of the Legislative Assembly in 1856 and would eventually become the first Parliamentary Librarian.

Examples of rare Canadiana

The Library of Parliament’s rare book collection contains Canadiana. As might be expected, it includes Canadian parliamentary documents, manuscripts of works by parliamentarians and books on parliamentary history. Other special items include:

• political documents printed in Canada before Confederation;

• travelogues, for example, by Champlain, Hennepin, McKenzie and Frobisher;

• 19th-century Canadian political pamphlets,

• historical censuses;

• rare editions of works by Canadian writers; and

• a collection of oral history interviews.

Additional treasures include an original 18th-century edition of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and an original “double elephant folio” edition of “Birds of America” by John James Audubon.

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