Nfld. & Labrador

Inside the old, rare and downright strange world of MUN's special books

What the Queen Elizabeth II Library has on its shelves just might surprise you.

What the QEII Library's Archives and Special Collections hold might surprise you

Memorial University's Archives and Special Collections librarian Patrick Warner holds a prayer book from the 1500s. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Each and every semester tens of thousands of university students trudge into Memorial University's Queen Elizabeth II library with the sole goal of getting what they need to get the paper done.

Newfoundland and Labrador's largest library and its staff help them find whatever it is they need from its millions of books, volumes, e-journals and digitized archives.

But not far from where students, sometimes begrudgingly, write those papers on the St. John's library's third floor sits the Archives and Specials Collections section, a world of rare, strange and awfully old books.

Local artist Tara Bryan's Walking on Eggs is one of the many unique artists' books at the library — the work is written on eggshells inside a carton. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Patrick Warner, a librarian with the section, says MUN has been amassing its general rare books collection since 1925 — when it was still Memorial College.

"It's a piece of everything from the late medieval period right up to the present, all kinds of unusual things in there," said Warner, who keeps an eye on the rare-book world and adds to the collection when he sees a hole in the library's holdings.

Grapefruit by Yoko Ono was originally published in 1964. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Recently he bought Yoko Ono's Grapefruit, an artist's book representing the Fluxus art movement. "Artists' books" are works that often experiment with the form of the work and don't look like traditional books.

"Her book is a little book of instructions if you like to do all kinds of weird, wonderful things out in the world and it's introduced by her husband, John Lennon," he said.

"It's kind of very tongue-in-cheek funny, you know, very '60s."

While he can keep Grapefruit on a shelf there are many other books that are hidden away behind lock and key — or behind a locked safe with a digital keypad — in a room specially safeguarded to suck the oxygen from the room to extinguish a fire.

Warner is a special collections librarian at MUN's QEII. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Among the works is a medieval prayer book made in Bruges, Belgium, around 1500.  

"It begins with a calendar to tell you the important feast days for that year in that particular place," Warner explained as he flipped through the book, with elaborate lettering on animal parchment paper.

From a safe, Warner hauled out a folder filled with ancient legal contracts, one dated 1354 and another 1311, that the library bought earlier this year.

"There hasn't been much work done on them yet," said Warner.

"We have to get someone to translate them. They are in Latin and French, so we need someone who is versed in medieval Latin and medieval French."

The library is still working on translating these legal documents from the 1300s. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

The Special Collections portion of the library is also home to some private collections donated to the QEII.

Two of the more notable ones are from famed folklorist Herbert Halpert, containing more than 13,000 monographs and journal titles, and Roger and Marlene Peattie's collection of more than 4,000 Pre-Raphaelite titles and Victorian illustrated books.

Warner knows the rare books aren't on the radar of most undergraduate students, but he appreciates the reaction when someone comes looking for something special.

"Then students are kind of blown away by what's available to them in the physical form," he said.

"I mean I see it all the time — you put a medieval manuscript in front of a student and their eyes light up in a way that you don't see when they're just sitting in front of the screen."

Warner said minibooks are always a popular book to show off from their collection. Here he holds a copy of the Qur'an with the Bible in the background. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

It's not just the tuition-paying students who can access what MUN's library has. Guest cards are free, and the Archives and Special Collections can be accessed — just don't think of taking one of the books home.

"They can't walk into the stacks and take the books off the shelves themselves but we will get them for them and they can use them under supervision in the reading room," Warner said. He added the library also has electronic tools to allow people to access the collection remotely — "and get their appetites stirred up."

QEII Archives and Special Collections has a world of rare books. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

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