The travails of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

The travails of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

Booknotes looks a fix for one of Canada’s greatest book collections

Mike Selby

According to the media company BuzzFeed, the “most magical library in the world” is the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. Architecturally spectacular, both inside and out, it boasts six floor holding 740,000 rare books, as well as 4000 feet of manuscripts. Why it beat out older and more prestigious libraries in the United States, Europe and China is no doubt due to the library’s philosophy regarding access. Besides faculty, researchers and students, the library’s collection is open to the general public as well. No other place in the world can an ordinary citizen be allowed to handle one of Shakespeare’s First Folios, Leonard Cohen’s persona; notebooks, or Margaret Atwood’s original works, which includes her first book—a self-published effort.

There actually was a Thomas Fisher, who left England in 1822 and settled along Ontario’s Humber River. He made a small fortune as a miller, and his great grandsons donated the family library to the University of Toronto in 1973.

Everything was great until 2004 when something sinister arrived unwelcomed into the stacks: condensation. The library’s insulation had begun to degrade, which was causing sharp changes temperatures, creating layers of condensation appearing. Water damage and mold are real concerns for any library, but for Fisher’s collections of ancient manuscripts, and papyrus from the time of Christ, this was a tremendous problem. The library staff tried to make due at first with duct tape and plastic sheets, but this was becoming less feasible with each passing year.

The university consulted with different restoration and architectural experts, but all came to the same conclusion: Nothing short of a complete rebuilding of the library would be the only way to restore climate control. Not only would this run into the tens if not hundreds of millions, but the collection would have to be stored somewhere, making it unavailable for a long stretch of time.

Then in the fall of 2016 one of the Thomas Fisher librarians saw a flyer for an upcoming undergraduate course called Problem Solving Engineering. He brought the library’s real world problem to the instructor, who handed it over to his students, most who had just come out of high school. They spent the semester tackling it, and soon came up with non-intrusive and cost-effective solution, even though—as one student commented— “we didn’t have any of the technical, industrial, architectural, or economic skills.”

Their solution was unique, as they proposed the university reinsulate the library from the outside. They were certain that if was sprayed or painted with a type of insulating foam, and then covered in concrete, condensation would not longer be a problem. And they were right.

“It’s a wonderful example of a U of T solution to a U of T problem,” the university’s administration stated. “One would never imagine a bunch of first year students being able to solve a problem like this, one that had puzzled people for years.”

The magic continues.

Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library