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Temple of the Tome

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library illuminates 4,000 years of Western history and culture

At the heavily trod corner of St. George and Harbord streets on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus stands the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. While students are more likely to visit its contiguous neighbour, the John P. Robarts Research Library, Fisher’s smaller, more specialized collection holds many literary jewels that illuminate 4,000 years of Western history and culture.

The rarer, the better, might be the implicit motto of any library dedicated to the preservation and use of exceptional items. The Fisher collection moves forward through all major historical periods and into the present day. And what better place to start than with Mesopotamia, an ancient region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, part of today’s Iraq. Among other contributions, Mesopotamia gave Western civilization its first form of writing, a style known as cuneiform. Appropriately, the Fisher library houses a cuneiform tablet from around 1800 BC, which probably comes from Ur, one of Mesopotamia’s oldest cities. Among its modern acquisitions is an Italian first edition of The Blind Assassin, alumna Margaret Atwood’s 2000 Booker Prize-winning novel.

The Fisher library’s interior is a hushed, strategically lit world containing some 600,000 rare books and 2,500 linear metres of manuscripts. From the entry-level floor, one’s upward gaze takes in five levels of book spines, and many more titles are housed below ground. A century ago, holdings were stored in what was simply called the Art Cupboard in the university library (now the English department) on King’s College Circle. However, steady acquisitions yielded a collection that became highly important in both size and scope, and in 1973, the Fisher library opened. It is named for Thomas Fisher, a Yorkshireman who came to Upper Canada in 1821, operated a gristmill near the Humber River and became a leading public figure. His great-grandsons, Sidney and Charles Fisher, sought to honour his memory by endowing U of T’s collection of rare books with their own extensive holdings of William Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling and the etchings of 17th-century Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar.

For scholars and book enthusiasts alike, a visit to the Fisher library is a transporting experience. Where else, for example, can you both read and feel – for the rare-book world is highly tactile – a copy of William Tyndale’s Bible, the first New Testament to be printed in English. In 1536, Tyndale was strangled and then burnt at the stake for his translation of the religious text, and copies of the book were routinely set on fire by authorities in England. Happily, in most places book-burning is no longer the accepted way of silencing dissent. And there are few places in the world more grateful for this fact than U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

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