U of T has the third-best library system in North America, behind only Harvard and Yale. However, most students often don’t see past the stacks and reading rooms, assuming that the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is the only treasure trove of old books. The Library Series introduces the special collections hosted at the different libraries at U of T, highlighting some of the best parts of our library system. 

Amongt undergraduate students, the E.J. Pratt Library is most famous for its big, airy windows and contemporary architecture — which, unlike Robarts, is easy on the eyes. Yet, rows upon rows of boxes are tucked secretively away in the sub-basement housing Pratt’s Special Collections.

Pratt boasts one of the largest Special Collections sections at U of T. Currently, this material is most frequently used by graduate students, faculty and external researchers. It has over 60 manuscript collections, available for all students to use.

Victoria College has been working towards getting more undergraduate students to use them. “We have a first-year Vic course, VIC184, that the library is involved with, where students have an archival assignment,” explains Pratt’s chief librarian, Lisa Sherlock. “So they choose an archive, which may have diaries, notebooks, letters, and they research the person they’ve picked, just on the basis on what’s in the archive. As a result of that class, we can have up to 20 undergrad students using the archival collections a term — it’s a way of getting students in and helping them get over their fear of special collections, and interacting with the library staff.”

In celebration of Virginia Woolf’s birthday on January 25, Pratt’s foyer currently showcases some of the author’s work that the library has collected over the years. “The collection was started by Mary Jackman, who was a Vic grad, and lived in Annesley Hall — where her collection of Hogarth Press books was housed,” says Sherlock, “she collected these first editions, which formed the basis for the collection, and it’s just been growing from there.” Pratt endeavours to collect all translations and editions of Virginia Woolf’s books, as well as books written by other members of the Bloomsbury Group and Woolf’s descendents. On display is the original sign of Hogarth Press, the publishing house founded by the Woolfs. “Leonard and Virginia Woolf were not only interested in the book as book, but they were interested in it as an aesthetic object — something that is beautiful to look at,” says Sherlock, accounting for the multiple editions of the same book on display, each with a different binding or cover.

The Samuel Taylor Coleridge Archive is another highlight of Pratt’s special collections. According to Sherlock: “It’s probably the most significant collection of Coleridge material outside of the British Library!” The story of the collection’s acquisition is intriguing, as Sherlock describes it: “There was a professor at Vic, Kathleen Coburn, who did research in England and got to know members of the Coleridge family, and came across a cupboard filled with diaries, notebooks, original manuscript material. When she got back to Canada, she got funding to purchase the materials and transferred it to the library after she was done her research.” The Coleridge collection is one of a kind, and draws researchers to Pratt from all over the world.

In addition to prominent British literary figures, Pratt owns a set of Aboriginal-related collections, which are among its most heavily requested materials. Documents belonging to the Methodist missionary Peter Jones in particular are most popular, as this material isn’t available online; it is one of the only collections that has been digitized at Pratt. “The James Evans collection features the earliest items printed in Canada, and we get requests for images whenever anyone is publishing on the history of the book,” Sherlock proudly explains. “James Evans was able to print a hymnology in Cree syllabics on elk skin, using very rudimentary printing tools, and we have the only three copies.”

The few collections mentioned here are only a snippet of the resources available at Pratt, including some hidden gems like Northrop Frye’s annotated copy of The Lord of the Rings. With archives spanning a wide range of centuries and subject matter, Pratt’s Special Collections are a highlight of U of T’s world-class library system.