Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Rare Book Collection has roots in many different places, including various federal institutions and the shelves of the nation’s book collectors. From relatively modest beginnings, it has grown into one of the finest collections of rare printed material in the country.
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Rare Book Illustrations
The collection began to take shape in the 1960s with a transfer of several hundred rare books from the Library of Parliament to the National Library of Canada. In 1967, the British government marked Canada’s centenary by contributing a number of outstanding rare works to the National Library’s collection.
In 1973, the National Library’s holdings of rare Canadiana were greatly enhanced through the acquisition of the book collection of Georges-Alphonse Daviault. Daviault’s collection of about 3,000 volumes contained many notable items, including 17 of the seventeenth-century reports written by Jesuit missionaries in New France known as Jesuit Relations.
By 1981, the collection included more than 13,000 volumes. It has continued to expand over the years through several significant donations as well as the Library’s acquisition programs. Additionally, the rare book collections from the former National Archives of Canada and the former National Library were merged to create one collection at LAC.
The Rare Book Collection is stored in the vaults at the Preservation Centre in Gatineau and is estimated to hold over 100,000 items.
Highlights from the collection
- Oldest item: a single leaf from a Gutenberg Bible, printed in Germany around 1454
- Oldest Canadian item: the March 23, 1752 issue of the Halifax Gazette printed by Canada’s first printer, John Bushell. This is the only known copy of one of the oldest surviving items printed in Canada
- Oldest full-length Canadian book: the Catechisme du diocese de Sens, an edition of 2,000 copies by the firm of Brown and Gilmore in 1765 in Quebec
- Oldest full-length Aboriginal language book printed in Canada: Nehiro-iriniui aiamihe massinahigan…, a Catholic prayer book in the Montagnais language, printed by Brown and Gilmore in 1767 in Quebec.
What’s in the collection
LAC’s Rare Book Collection includes books and other printed materials covering a wide range of subjects and time periods. The purpose of the collection is to hold materials which require special storage or preservation conditions for reasons such as age, value, rarity, and fragility. Items are acquired through purchase, legal deposit, donation, or transfer from LAC’s general collection.
The following types of material are kept in the Rare Book Collection:
- Pre-Confederation books and other materials printed in Canada, printed abroad by Canadians or about Canada, or having a Canadian connection.
- Early printed books, regardless of place of publication or subject.
- Pre-1900 western Canadian imprints.
- Pre-1950 imprints in Canadian Aboriginal languages.
- Canadiana significantly enhanced by manuscript annotations, provenance, association, etc.
- Canadian private press limited editions of 300 copies or fewer.
- Canadian livres-objets (i.e. books that focus more on the material and sculptural aspects than on reading) and artists' books containing original works of art.
A special collection is an accumulation of published material related by provenance and/or subject. These collections are created by individuals or organizations documenting a certain topic, but they can also be less specific; an individual’s personal library may contain books on a vast number of subjects, reflecting the development of his or her interests over a lifetime.
The Rare Book Collection holds several special collections, each consisting of material that came to LAC as a pre-existing unit. These unique collections are maintained as distinct groupings within the Rare Book Collection.
Examples of LAC’s special collections include:
Alexander E. MacDonald Collection of Books on Canadian Geography, Exploration, and Travel
John Bell Collection of Canadian Comic Books
Carl Spadoni Collection of Works by Stephen Leacock
Collection of Books from the Library of William Lyon Mackenzie King
Ronald I. Cohen Collection of Works by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Areas of strength
The mandate of LAC’s Rare Book Collection is to collect Canadiana printed before Confederation and rare Canadiana printed after Confederation. Alongside this general focus, the collection has several particular areas of strength:
Pre-1800 Canadian printing: over 500 items, one of the largest collections of Canada’s earliest printers
Exploration and discovery: extensive holdings on the early exploration of Canada, with particular focus on New France and the North
Government documents: 17th to 19th century French and British government publications relating to Canada, as well as pre-Confederation Canadian official publications
Popular and ephemeral publications: Canadian almanacs, broadsides, newspapers, paperbacks, and trade catalogues, as well as the largest library collections of Canadian comic books and pulp magazines
Fine printing and the book arts: Canadian small and private press editions, fine and artistic bindings, and artists' books and livre-objets
Aboriginal language imprints: about 750 pre-1950 publications printed in the languages of North America’s indigenous populations
Consultation and research
Finding rare books
Much of the material in LAC’s Rare Book Collection is discoverable via AMICUS
, LAC’s online catalogue. AMICUS records contain important information about collection items and conditions surrounding access to them.
To determine whether an item is held in the Rare Book Collection, look at the “NLC Copies” field near the top of the AMICUS record (“NLC” stands for National Library of Canada). This field contains helpful information about the item.
AMICUS No. 18183689
NLC COPIES: Reserve - F5458 M86 1876 - LAC copy: In original pale
green printed wrappers. Very fragile. Untrimmed and
partially unopened. - NO ILL
NAME(S):*Moodie, Susannah Strickland, 1803-1885
TITLE(S): Roughing it in the bush, or, Life in Canada / by
PUBLISHER: New York : R.M. De Witt, 1876.
DESCRIPTION: 2 v. in 1 (, 211, 224 p.) ; 20 cm.
The first part indicates the item’s location within LAC’s collections. The main location for the Rare Book Collection is Reserve. If you see that word in the NLC Copies field either alone or in combination with something else (e.g.: “COP.RESERVE” - the location for pre-Confederation Canadian Official Publications), you are looking at a rare book record.
However, two other locations associated with the Rare Book Collection do not contain the word Reserve. They are: MusRare
, which refers to the Rare Music Collection of old and rare books related to music (e.g.: OCLC 1006741706
); and Merrilees
, which indicates items from the Andrew Merrilees Transportation Collection (e.g.: OCLC 1007291858
Also in the NLC Copies field, you will find the item’s call number (also called the shelf list number). LAC assigns alphanumeric call numbers using the Library of Congress Classification system. Most rare books have typical Library of Congress Classification
numbers. There are exceptions in cases where another system is more appropriate. For example, items in the John Davis Barnett Collection of Trade Catalogues and Pamphlets have simple numbers indicating the box in which they are stored (e.g.: OCLC 1007191314
In some cases, there is additional information at the end of the call number. For example, the call numbers for items in the Alexander Edward MacDonald Collection of Books on Canadian Geography, Exploration, and Travel include the notation “MacDonald coll.” to indicate their provenance (e.g.: OCLC 1007334652
After the call number, the NLC Copies field may include specific notes on the copy described, such as a physical description or a provenance note. In the example above, the notes indicate that LAC’s copy of this 1876 edition of Roughing It in the Bush is still in the original paper wrappers it was first published in, and that some of the pages are “unopened,” meaning that the top edges were never cut open after the paper was folded.
Accessing rare books
All items in Library and Archives Canada’s Rare Book Collection are accessible to the public. Consultation of rare items generally takes place in the Special Collections Consultation Room (room 326) at 395 Wellington St. in Ottawa. Please consult the Preparing for a Visit
, Consult and Borrow Material
and the Service and Opening Hours
pages found under the Copies and Visiting tab of LAC website
prior to your visit. Consultations must be arranged at least three business days in advance.
In certain cases where an item is particularly fragile or a researcher has special needs, LAC staff will arrange a consultation at the Preservation Centre in Gatineau.
Ordering a rare book in AMICUS
When you request an item from the Rare Book Collection in AMICUS, you will see the following message:
This document belongs to the rare book collection. If you are unable to find a copy of the document in another format (electronic or microfilm) or in another edition, please consult the reference desk located on the second floor of our offices at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa.
If another edition or format is inadequate for your research or not available, we will provide the original. LAC reference staff will help you place your order.
It generally takes about three business days from the time of the request for items to be delivered for consultation. Please plan your visit accordingly.
Restrictions on access
Some AMICUS records note restrictions on access and copying in the NLC Copies field. For example:
ITEM DOES NOT CIRCULATE. Please contact Rare Book Collection staff to arrange a consultation.
LAC staff will help you arrange to consult these non-circulating items at the Preservation Centre.
Handling rare books
White gloves should not be worn when handling rare books. Use clean hands and caution.
Items from the Rare Book Collection are generally on loan for a period of three days. However, LAC will be pleased to accommodate researchers who need more time.
for rare books can be ordered via LAC’s website. The condition of rare items must be assessed before reproduction requests can be filled. Should LAC determine that the handling involved in reproducing the item would damage it, requests will be denied.
For books that have already been identified as too fragile to copy, the following note may appear in the NLC Copies field at the top of the AMICUS record:
FRAGILE - DO NOT COPY.
Unfortunately, ordering reproductions or photographing the item is impossible in these cases.
Photocopying of rare books is not permitted.
Every book requested from LAC’s Rare Book Collection receives a conservation assessment before it is delivered to the requester. If a book is deemed too fragile to photograph, a paper flag with instructions regarding limitations on copying will be included with the item when it is delivered to the consultation room.
You may photograph rare books during a consultation unless a paper flag with instructions regarding limitations on copying is included. Please do not use your flash.
From our Rare Book Vault: What Makes a Book Rare?
Blog: From our Rare Book Vault: What Makes a Book Rare?
Rare Books / Livres rares