Well my day just became much more interesting…

Which is not to say I do not normally enjoy my job, because I do. I consider myself a bookish fellow, so to come to the library and work all day in a room full of old leather-bound volumes hardly even feels like work at all… okay, it feels a little like work. But as they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover, so I can’t just sit around and admire them sitting on the shelf. Sometimes, I actually have to open them, and on occasion I find something more than just the printed text.

We’re currently in the process of reorganizing the Osgoode rare book collections by size – a project which will shortly be the subject of another post. As part of the project, I’m reviewing each volume before assigning the new shelf number, updating and upgrading the cataloguing as necessary. Today I came across two rather plain volumes, though nicely rebound in brown quarter-leather with canvas boards, and their spines decorated with gilt rules and red labels bearing the succinct title Precedents / Chitty. Nevertheless, though I think I’d normally leave something like this on the shelf, I was obligated to part the covers and take a look inside.

The front pastedown endpaper proudly bore its York Law Library bookplate, but again that was nothing remarkable, as most of these books do. As I turned the page, however, something caught my eye. On the verso of the front free endpaper was a short inscription. I love finding these notes in books because they are sometimes as entertaining as they are informational. Much of the time inscriptions simply record details such as the name of the book’s owner, the price they paid for it, and when they made the purchase. Today’s inscription looked fairly typical. It was signed “W. David McPherson”, and a quick search revealed him to have been a Member of Provincial Parliament in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, representing Toronto West from 1908 to 1919, and a lawyer in Toronto before that. It’s always gratifying to pin a book’s provenance to a known historical figure; but McPherson’s status as pre-eminent former owner was short-lived, for his inscription read:

“Purchased this 9th day of December 1891 from Oliver, Coate & Co. on Sale of Law Library of the Right Honorable…”

…and this is when my day got much more interesting…

“…Sir John A. MacDonald G.C.B.”

And not only that, but as my eyes scanned across to the facing title-page, I saw a neat little scribble. Though I might have expected that the Prime Minister’s well-publicized tippling would have produced an unsteady hand, I could clearly read the signature “John A. MacDonald”.

I quickly turned to the second volume which, as I expected, bore the exact same inscription and the exact same autograph. Here I had in my hands two books documented to have been in our first prime minister’s personal library. Not only that, I had his autograph – twice! MacDonald was called to the Bar in 1836, and these volumes were published in 1839, so he may have bought them new; his signature is evidence that they were in his personal possession, evidence supported by the inscription by the subsequent purchaser. The books provide evidence of another characteristic of the early law book trade in Canada: Though Canada was still a British colony at the time, these books were published in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was common practice to import American editions of British legal classics, simply because they were so much more affordable than books imported from the Old World.

This lucky encounter reminded me of a phrase, “discovered in storage”, which you sometimes hear in conversation about museums and libraries. This phrase would apply to an artifact or item that the institution didn’t even know it owned until it was, by stroke of fortune, recovered from obscurity. Such stories are actually quite common.  For museums and rare book libraries, the reason we collect books or artifacts and catalogue them is to protect and preserve them from damage, but also from loss. Still, sometimes it just happens that items of note are lost or forgotten over time simply due to the sheer volume of materials that surround it. In this case, the original cataloguer simply missed the importance of the signature and inscription, presuming they were even noticed. The concept of finding new items in an established collection highlights some of the inherent difficulties – and pleasures! – of librarianship. Effectively, if an item isn’t catalogued, it doesn’t exist; and even if it is catalogued, if no one knows to look for it, isn’t it as good as nonexistent? And then the questions become existential: Why are we even doing this in the first place?! Such are the Borgesian nightmares of librarians. Sadly, this is what keeps me up at night.

1 thought on “Well my day just became much more interesting…

  1. This very timely and useful post helped me decide whether to purchase another old law book sold in this auction. The title is An Abridgement of Penal Statutes by Addington.

    In his will, Sir John A. left his law library to his lawyer son. The son evidently had no need for many of the books, and sold them off shortly after his father`s death.

    From the will….

    I bequeath to my son my law library and all and singular my law books, including such books of reference as are usually found in a well-appointed law library; provided that in case of doubt as to whether any particular book or class of books is included in this bequest, such doubt shall be resolved by my executors or the majority of them….

    I give and bequeath to my wife for her own use and benefit all my jewels, trinkets, watches, plate, linen, china, glass, books, pictures, prints, statues, statuettes, busts, articles of vertu, furniture and household effects, other than those hereby otherwise disposed of, and without wishing or intending to impress any trust upon the same, I leave it entirely to her discretion whether any of the articles hereby bequeathed to her should be given to my son Hugh, or in case of his decease to his son as being connected with my career as a public man. I would suggest that my said wife should first select out of said books such volumes as she would wish to keep, and then offer the remainder thereof for sale at Toronto or Ottawa by public auction, as many of my friends may desire to possess a book of mine….

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