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A rare jewel in the library's crown

The surprising treasures within the McGill Library

McGill Library Rare Books Collection illustration

The McGill Library is renowned among many of its peer institutions for the scholarly strength and depth of its unique Rare Books and Special Collections, whose vast and impressive holdings have been carefully amassed since the 1850s through gifts and acquisitions.

Among the Collection’s rare jewels are several 19th century iron printing presses, Assyrian and Babylonian tablets dating from about 2000 B.C.E., and the extra-large folio edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827-1838).

Special compendia highlighting social and cultural history include extensive holdings in natural history, Canadiana, art and architecture, philosophy and the history of thought, children’s literature, and manuscripts. A range of artifacts and "realia" complement the printed collections, including puppets from around the world, and type specimens from book and printing history.

"These rich and diverse materials provide students, faculty and researchers from all academic disciplines with unique and illuminating primary research opportunities,” says Head Librarian Christopher Lyons. “We also organize a program of curated exhibitions to boost awareness of the Collection’s resources, and promote partnerships and interdisciplinary exchanges with the wider scholarly community.”

Among these is a research grant that is available to scholars from around the globe to spend three months working with McGill’s extraordinary collection of works by the Scottish philosopher David Hume.

The Library is undertaking a $15-million campaign to create a new home for its Rare Books and Special Collections. “This endeavour will provide for the future of McGill’s unique materials, and ensure their place at the very heart of learning by exposing them – and the University itself – to a wider audience,” says Lyons.

The Collection’s new and expanded space will reflect its world-class stature. Innovative facilities will ensure proper storage and optimal scholarly access to its important holdings. Spacious public galleries will offer new opportunities to share McGill’s unique treasures with the campus community and visitors alike, and top-notch digital teaching and learning facilities will offer interactive ways to explore the collection and contextualize it with other materials held at sister universities and libraries around the world.

With a luminous new face on lower campus, Rare Books and Special Collections will be more than just a crucial resource for the campus community; it will facilitate the sharing of McGill’s rich collections of current and rare materials, allowing users to embark on a journey of inspiration, curiosity and life-long learning. World-class digital teaching and learning facilities will offer new, interactive ways to explore the collection and contextualize it with other materials held at sister universities and libraries around the world.

There will also be examination rooms and consultation areas that will foster interaction between curators and scholars. A welcoming reading room and research space will showcase McGill’s impressive collection of rare books, manuscripts, maps, archives, private papers and prints.

Rare Books and Special Collections by the numbers

Of the McGill Library’s print collection of 3.8 million volumes

  • 1.2 million (41% of collection) are designated unique in Quebec
  • 440,000 items are not held at any other Canadian university
  • 600,000 volumes are held in McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collection (26% of collection)
  • More than 250,000 items are not held anywhere else in the world