Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

“At Home with Books”: A Librarian’s View of Working away from Books 

Date posted: Thu, Apr. 16, 2020

The antiquarian booksellers Simon Beattie, Justin Croft, Ben Kinmont, and Heather O’Donnell recently issued a joint catalogue, At Home with Books (9 April 2020), in an effort to share their favourite books with members of the rare book community. As I read the descriptions of the forty items, I think how this catalogue is the product of a recent past when booksellers could travel without restrictions to buy books at international book fairs, scouting trips, and host meetings with collectors and colleagues to discuss their findings. The reality is that most booksellers now face - like the rest of us - an imminent season of profound changes to their way of life and work. That is why this catalogue is a welcome initiative in the current climate and a timely reminder of how books bring people together in times of upheaval.

The publication of At Home with Books also made me reflect on my own relationship with books. In my professional practice as a rare book librarian, I am responsible for building, accessioning, and overseeing collections of rare books, in addition to contributing to the overall preservation of the intellectual and cultural history of the Fisher Library collections. I enjoy every aspect of my work, especially examining books for cataloguing. The act of cataloguing creates a brief yet important tactile and visual connection with the books. It is in these moments of close inspection that I learn the most about the books and their former owners or readers, about their printers and binders, and often discover traces of evidence that eventually become part of the permanent bibliographic records in the online catalogue. I miss these moments now that I am working from home away from the books, anticipating like the rest of my colleagues a return to our regular routine. In the meantime, I would like to share some comments on a selection of my favourite books I have catalogued over the years and regularly use for teaching at the library. 

The book Travels in Brazil (1816) by the English traveller and coffee-grower Henry Koster (ca. 1793-1820) is a fine example of British travel literature about  Brazil published in the nineteenth century. I updated, at some point, the bibliographic record to account for the presence of aquatint prints in this book. The illustrations are based on the original views taken by Koster during his time in Pernambuco and other regions of Brazil, some of which depict early views of the sugar industry in the former Portuguese colony. The representation of social scenes including slaves, free people of colour, merchants, and landowners also make this book a popular choice in classes studying the history of slavery and the discourse of abolitionist movements in British travel literature about the Americas. On the same topic, I recently catalogued a copy of Views in South America (1852) by William Gore Ouseley (1797-1866). This work is the most important illustrated travel account of Brazil with twenty-six lithographs based on Ouseley’s watercolors of landscapes and social scenes in Bahia, various locations in Rio de Janeiro, in addition to views of Montevideo, Ouseley’s home in Buenos Aires, the government’s headquarters in Paraná, Tenerife (a former convent) and Funchal (Fort Loureiro). Both titles are now part of the library’s growing collection of travel literature to Latin America.  

Another interesting work of travel literature is an album of watercolours by George Heriot (1759-1839), a Scottish-Canadian civil servant, author, and artist who produced some of the earliest depictions of Canada in print, particularly his renowned Travels through the Canadas (1805, 1807). Heriot also travelled to the Caribbean between 1779 and 1780, where he produced watercolours for his natural history observations and even wrote a poem that was published in 1781. The extant sixty-one watercolours of this journey to the West Indies depict local flora and fauna, including insects, snakes, birds, fish, plants, trees, and one armadillo, all of which can be seen in the Fisher Library Flickr stream. 

When I catalogued the next book, I knew it would be a popular source for students in the UofT course “History of Sex Trade in Canada and Comparative Contexts”. The Slang of Venery and its Analogues was privately printed in Chicago in 1916 as the first known compilation in English of earlier works on the language of sexual desire and pleasure. The work contains hundreds of sexual terms with definitions, synonyms, and bibliographical references to other sources. This three-volume set was the copy used by Fred Kerner (1921-2012), a Canadian author and publisher who played an important role in the early success of the romance series of Harlequin Enterprises. On the subject of romances, I catalogued last year a unique work completed by the Spanish author Álvaro Retana (1890-1970) while he was incarcerated for the publication of “libertine literature” under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923-1930). The two albums contain fifty original illustrations of costume designs by Retana and a dedication to his friend Manuel Comba (1902-1987), who was Professor of the Royal Conservatory of Music and the Artistic Director of the Spanish Theatre. Retana published over one hundred novellas and several novels during his long but often ignored literary career, including his Travesuras de amor (1915) and Los extravios de Tony (1919). 

I look forward to the time when I will be able to retrieve these books from the stacks and show again them in classes or tours. Until then, the digital surrogates will have to satisfy our curiosity for now and allow us to revisit some of old favourite books from the safety of our homes, where all of us at the Fisher Library remain committed to providing access to resources and digital collections amid library closures.

- David Fernández, Rare Book Librarian