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Explore the archival treasures in Concordia’s Special Collections

From ancient manuscripts to rare art books, there’s something for every discipline and research project
September 15, 2015
By Tom Peacock


Wearing white cloth gloves, Alexandra Mills, special collections curator, carefully turns the pages of a huge album containing William Notman’s photographs documenting the construction and inauguration of the Victoria Bridge between 1858 and 1860.

The large volume is one of thousands of rare books and archival items in Concordia Libraries’ Special Collections.

“It’s an amazing treasure,” Mills says of the album, which shows the once-covered rail span gradually being built across the expanse of the St. Lawrence River. No matter how rare or how old they are, such items from Special Collections are available for library visitors to peruse, upon request.

‘We want this stuff to be available. We want people to be able to use it’

“If someone were to come and want to look at the album, we would show them how to safely do so — what gloves to wear, how to put it in the cradle and how best to turn the pages,” says Mills.

There are certain rules and procedures that need to be followed when you’re handling this stuff, but as Mills points out, most of them are common sense: “Don’t lick your fingers when you turn the page, don’t put your stuff on an open book, and handle things very carefully and very diligently.”

As Mills’ colleague Christopher James explains, “We want this stuff to be available. We want people to be able to use it. But on the other hand, we also want people 100 years from now to be able to use it. So we have to take good care of it.”


On a recent afternoon in the Special Collections Reading Room, Mills and James pulled a few choice items from the 1,600 linear metres of books and archival materials.

They included a signed, limited-edition 1929 copy of Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, a foldable map of Montreal from 1890, a 235-year-old Japanese book of wood-block prints containing instructions for hosting a tea ceremony, and several books once owned by Canadian poet and former part-time instructor Irving Layton, which contain his personal notes in the margins.

Most of the materials, including the vast Irving Layton Collection, are housed in a climate-controlled vault on the ground floor of the Georges P. Vanier Library on the Loyola Campus.

How to explore Special Collections

The process for consulting individual items is fairly straightforward: you explain to a member of the Special Collections library staff what you’re looking for, they track down the requested items in the vault, and you consult them in the Reading Room. But it’s best to show up with a good idea of what you’re looking for, since each book, box or piece of archival material has to be retrieved individually.

“Each published item has a record in the catalogue, but for archives, it’s not exactly like that,” Mills says. “Things are grouped by their topic or format, then it’s up to the user to really delve into that.”

The objects in Special Collections serve the research needs of a wide variety of disciplines. The Azrieli Holocaust Collection, for example, contains thousands of items, including digitized government records, books, diaries and films. The Gay and Lesbian Literature Collection brings together hundreds of volumes of poetry and fiction from the 19th and 20th century.

The Concordia University Performance Recordings Collection comprises a vast trove of more than 1,200 recordings of musical performances by Concordia’s students, faculty and guests.


Some of the materials in Special Collections date back to the early days of Loyola College, which was founded in 1896. The university’s oldest book, an illuminated, hand-printed manuscript called The Book of Hours, dates from 1450.

Mills and James agree it’s difficult to choose one favourite item from among the holdings in Special Collections.

However, Mills singles out a beautiful limited-edition art book containing Gabrielle Roy’s famous children’s story La petite poule d’eau (1971), illustrated with 20 lithographs by Jean-Paul Lemieux, as among her top picks.

“Everything, including the box, was made by hand,” she says. “I just love the illustrations.”

James prizes the library’s extensive collection of Amazing Stories science fiction magazines. “The stories are not necessarily classics, he admits. “But I love the covers, and I love that somebody loved science fiction so much that they saved these.”

No matter what you’re looking for, chances are you’ll find something to bolster your scholarly efforts from the wealth of interdisciplinary material in Special Collections, Mills insists. And don’t worry, she adds, the library staff will provide you with the right gloves for the job.

Learn more about Concordia Libraries Special Collections.


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