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Where quirky collectibles go to rest

From puppets to a personalized pizza box, libraries' special collections are home to some very strange items.

Rosalynde Stearn puppet collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University library. Photos by Greg Houston.
Rosalynde Stearn puppet collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University library. Photos by Greg Houston.

She has lost the sparkly paste diamond from one shoe in the course of her travels, and a couple of the buttons on her red jabot hang by threads. But her lips are still painted a saucy scarlet and the gold trim on her gown glows even though she hasn’t trod the boards since entertaining troops in the First World War.

Life is considerably quieter now, as one of the puppets in McGill University’s special collections, but she’s keeping good company. The famous trio of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the faithful steed Rosinante are there, along with a Harlequin from 1762, the full cast of Aristophanes’ play The Clouds, and a couple of child-sized Corsican knights in full armour and weighing almost 10 kilograms apiece. And there are dozens of others: string, glove, shadow, rod and finger puppets, along with two Chinese “piano dancers.” Constructed from coloured paper, sticks, and delicate rice paper, the dancers are designed so that when placed on a piano, the musical vibrations make their dresses keep time with the music.

All are part of what is arguably one of the quirkiest university collections in Canada. The Rosalynde Stearn Puppet Collection was acquired by McGill in 1953 from Canadian puppeteer Rosalynde Osborne Stearn and now contains 175 puppets from far-flung countries, including Russia, Czechoslo-vakia, Italy, Java, Belgium and Indonesia, as well as nearly 3,000 puppetry books and periodicals from the 19th and 20th centuries, scripts for puppet plays, miniature theatres, theatrical portraits, paintings, prints and posters. “It is unusual,” says Richard Virr, curator of rare books and special collections at McGill University Libraries. “As far as I know it’s the only puppet collection in Canada.”

This may be true, but many of Canada’s universities are a treasure trove of unique, historical, or downright odd collections. Some are bequeathed, some are sought out and others are accidental discoveries, but all are an essential part of a university’s holdings and even its reputation.

While one would expect a university to have reputable holdings of rare books, personal papers and publications, many collections go beyond that. If you’re looking for a children’s rhyme popular in New York City during the Great Depression, then the Herbert Halpert Folklore Collection at Memorial University is your go-to source. Or if it’s a comic book you’re after, the Eddy Smet collection of almost 8,000 comic books at Western University is believed to be one of the largest and most valuable compilations of this type of material ever donated to a Canadian school.

“It’s like cutting off my own arms because I’ve been collecting for more than 40 years,” said Dr. Smet, a former Western math professor, in a news release in 2009, announcing his gift. “But I know giving my collection to a place like Western will provide a wonderful resource for students and faculty who are studying pop culture, visual arts or even women’s studies.” Since his initial gift, Dr. Smet has been systematically donating key portions of his collection, which originally totalled over 10,000 books, to Western. The balance of the collection is expected to be received within the next few years.

Eddy Smet comic book collection, Western Libraries, Western University.
Eddy Smet comic book collection, Western Libraries, Western University.

If comic books can provide an unusual sociological purview on society, imagine what can be gleaned by reading what 17th-century English housewives were cooking for supper and how they were preparing and serving it. The University of Guelph’s culinary collection boasts approximately 16,000 titles. “A lot of people are interested in looking at cookbooks as sort of a window into social and cultural history,” says Melissa McAfee, special collections librarian at U of Guelph, after teaching a class about the history of food.

And there could be few better authorities on 17th-century English cooking than Hannah Woolley, in her day the undisputed queen of cookery and household management. “Hannah Woolley was one of the first women to write and publish a cookbook, called The Queen-like Closet, in the 17th century. Her husband had died, and this was partly to support herself,” Ms. McAfee says. “The Queen-like Closet was a way to show people the sort of manners and customs you would need to be upper class. It was educational. If you wanted to rise through the ranks, these are the types of things you should be cooking, this is how you should set your table.”

The University of Guelph also holds the largest collection of Scottish history outside Scotland. It includes centuries-old documents such as land charters handwritten on vellum, atlases, travel guides, diaries and family, clan and emigration information.

“A collection can be like a laboratory for the humanities, just as if you were studying the sciences you would go to a chemistry lab to conduct experiments. It shows a university is supporting research on a very high level,” says Ms. McAfee, who was drawn to U of Guelph for its culinary and Scottish collections.

“My background is in rare books and what I saw was a university that had done a very good job of collecting in these areas, and not just in numbers but depth,” she explains, noting that the collections are used by researchers from around the world. Since arriving at U of Guelph in 2012, she has worked at promoting the collections to faculty and students on campus.

What people were eating is one intriguing sociological window. What was making them sick and how they were being “cured” is another. Université Laval hosts an extensive collection of artifacts relating to the origins of pharmacy and pharmacology, including scales, opium pipes and collections of herbal and vegetable-based medicines, some in their original packaging. There are also hundreds of prescriptions dating back to the 1800s.

“In Canada, pharmacists were also doctors in the 18th and 19th century. After that their role was to make medicine and prepare medicine,” explains Gilles Barbeau, professor emeritus in the faculty of pharmacy who still teaches a course on the history of pharmacy. “We want to preserve the heritage of the pharmacist and have better knowledge of their lives, because it is not known at all,” especially by students. “Everybody knows about the history of physicians, but nobody knows the history of pharmacists.”

The collection contains important information about the evolution and use of numerous medicines, he says. Mistletoe, for example, was used to treat hypertension while mercury was widely prescribed to cure diseases such as syphilis. It worked on the syphilis, but had the unfortunate side effect of poisoning the patient.

On the other hand, a number of modern-day drugs have been on the medical scene for decades. With the help of the collection, “students can learn that the Chinese used vaccinations for smallpox 2,000 years ago,” says Dr. Barbeau. The artifacts help illustrate the arrival of antibiotics in 1905, then the emergence of Aspirin. “There have been many, many discoveries of medicines that we still use today.”

A more modern take on society can be found at the University of British Columbia. It was the fortunate beneficiary of a huge array of Douglas Coupland’s manuscripts, photos, visual art, fan mail, correspondence, press clippings and audiovisual material because, the artist says, “I’m not good at taking care of them myself. Most people aren’t.”

The prolific Vancouver-based author, visual artist, playwright, graphic designer and filmmaker is famous for popularizing the term “Generation X” to describe the generation born between the 1960s and 1980s. The donation includes some daily-life detritus as well as a bejeweled hornet’s nest, a digital orca, a mould of Terry Fox’s leg and a used pizza box embellished with Mr. Coupland’s calligraphic swirls. (Mr. Coupland says including that last item wasn’t his idea.) “But I’m glad they’re properly taking care of things,” he says in an email interview. “That is an honour. Otherwise it’d all be in a storage box turning yellow and scary.”

UBC’s rare books and special collections archivist Krisztina Laszlo says the Coupland fond “is very much about art production. He is a collector of the minutiae of society, so it really is a snapshot of what life is like in the 20th and the 21st centuries.” According to the artist, everything in the collection so far “very neatly straddles the pre-Internet era and the Internet era. It reflects a massive shift in the way we perceive the world. This can’t be stressed enough.”

Douglas Coupland collection at UBC. Photos by Kamil Bialous.
Douglas Coupland collection at UBC. Photos by Kamil Bialous.

While the pizza box and some of the other bits posed some “significant” archiving challenges, these also proved to be a good, hands-on learning experience for student archivists at UBC, who kept a blog about processing the Coupland collection. The old pizza box with calligraphy on the top needed to be thoroughly cleaned. “We began by gently scraping off bits of cheese and crumbs with a scalpel. We took great care to not damage the box,” wrote one student on the blog.

Mr. Coupland says that for him, the most important part of the donation was “the massive amount of visual work I did during the 1990s to go onto This before the word ‘blog’ existed … or anything else Internet-y that we take for granted now. There was nowhere to go in 1994 … NOWHERE. So, much of the donation is the documentation of creating a somewhere.”

“Because he is such a pivotal figure in the arts and culture scene in Canada, UBC saw the value of having his papers,” Ms. Laszlo says. “And by value I don’t mean monetary value, I mean cultural value, the value to students who can use the materials for research. It touches on so many disciplines for students from cultural studies, art history, literary, English. There are so many aspects that are accessible through this material.”

For a special collections archivist, deciding what to collect or accept requires steely-eyed focus and discipline, says McGill’s Dr. Virr. “Certainly anything I’m directly involved in, it’s going to be a question about whether it provides materials for teaching and research.”

But that can lead to some tough choices – Dr. Virr says he has declined several collections that were beyond the scope of the library. “It’s very easy in my position to feel like you are a kid in a candy shop because there is so much that you see and you say, ‘Oh wouldn’t that be marvellous.’ And that doesn’t really work because then you end up with a little bit of everything.”

While space for collections is not currently an issue at McGill, even if it were it still would be his responsibility to acquire new holdings. “I would find it extremely difficult to refuse something on the grounds that I didn’t have room for it if I really felt that it was important to our holdings,” observes Dr. Virr.

At Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, the library’s rare collection of lesbian pulp fiction is kept under lock and key – but not because of its racy subject matter. The scarcity and fragility of the books is such that they must be stored and handled very carefully.

Image courtesy of MSVU business student Liam Osler.
Image courtesy of MSVU business student Liam Osler.

English professor Rhoda Zuk says the collection started with one box of books she happened upon in 1997. “I came across a bunch in a second-hand store and the bookstore owner knew quite a lot about them. I bought up what they had and ran out of cash in my wallet.” Then she spoke to some colleagues. The Mount’s librarian at the time, now the keeper of the collection, “was all over it. She found a fund.”

Today these books – a genre that evolved beginning in 1952 with the publication of the bestselling novel, Spring Fire – are prominently displayed in a glass-fronted case on a wall near the circulation desk. “It’s a testimony to our interest in women and their history and sexual history,” Dr. Zuk says. “These novels were, for many lesbians, the only sign that they were visible. The [books] were on drugstore racks and they were mostly supposed to be junky, sexy stuff for men. But women were buying them and they were seeing themselves reflected.”

There’s a certain irony that the collection now resides in a university originally founded by nuns in 1873 to educate girls and women, but Dr. Zuk says the collection has broad academic appeal and cultural significance. She rhymes off the many fields that could have research or educational interest in the collection: women and gender studies; history; literature; sociology; publishing and design. “You can spend a long time with students talking about the covers,” which are almost unfailingly lurid, she says. “There’s often a man in the background towering over a couple of women. … The women are sexy kittens, often in [sadomasochistic] postures.”

Despite this, the books had to be written along socially acceptable mores of the time. “They were written within strict confines of what publishers would allow,” says Dr. Zuk. “One of the authors, Ann Bannon, has said, ‘They could have a little fun but then in the end one of the lesbians had to die and the other one had to get married’ ” – to a man, of course.

Whatever is contained in a university’s library holdings, its special collections are coming under increased scrutiny in an era of competition for students and top faculty, says Dr. Virr. “More and more, universities are judged on the merit of their rare books and special collections,” he observes. “You’re trying to position yourself. You want to serve your own institution.” One route is by teaching students from McGill and other Montreal universities about McGill’s rare books and special collections, he says. “Then you want the researchers coming from away.”

Archivists believe that spectacular materials will always find a home, even in times of budget restraint. “Perhaps the scope of what we do, or the length of time required to process and make materials accessible, will be impacted by fiscal issues,” says Ms. Laszlo of UBC. But, she asserts, “the goal to provide resources for research will never be eliminated.”


Becky Rynor
Becky Rynor is a journalist and editor based in Ottawa, specializing in environmental, health, law & arts reporting.
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  1. Richard White / December 7, 2016 at 08:30

    Love this informative piece. We have toured several universities over the years looking for fun, funky and quirky things to see and do (see blogs at This piece will definitely influence what we do when we are next in London, Guelph or Halifax. This is piece is a hidden gem.