Studying hidden treasures in the MacDonald Collection

by Darcy Eisan

One way to judge the importance of items is the barrier designed to protect them. The books in the MacDonald Collection are safely guarded by locked glass bookcases, alarms ready to scream, and keenly observant library staff nearby. This level of security reveals the MacDonald Collection to be exactly what it is: a prized possession of the university nestled within a humble, quiet space for students to study.

What makes the collection so special is that it contains many unique books. These include first editions of prominent texts and authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and the infamously once-thieved The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Also present are other notably distinct texts including miniature versions of Shakespeare’s plays and a gorgeously illustrated Arabian Nights. Most artistically intricate are the books in the collection that are adorned with fore-edge paintings. These paintings are hidden treasures, only to appear on the edges of the pages (the “leaves”) when they are held in a deliberately revealing manner. Of course, none of this collection would exist without its benefactor and namesake, William MacDonald. He, a book collector by hobby, obtained and donated between 1951 and 1959 the books that would make up the present-day collection.

An example of fore-edge painting.

An example of fore-edge painting

Helpful librarians were keen to display parts of the collection (including the fore-edge paintings and much more!) when students from Dr. Anna Smol’s newly offered course, History of Writing, Reading, and the Book (ENGL/WRIT 2223) visited last fall to hear a talk by Librarian Emeritus Peter Glenister, a retired Mount librarian whose scholarly ambition has been dedicated to completing a survey of the collection in its entirety.

Peter Glenister, Librarian Emeritus, displaying MacDonald Collection books

In this course, students learned about how books came to exist and become culturally important; they discussed theories about authorship and about orality and textuality; they examined how digital culture is changing what has been known as the “communications circuit.” They also learned about the meticulous nature of the material process required to create and preserve physical books, by binders, gilders, publishing entities, printing presses, book conservators, the rise of various kinds of libraries, principles of scholarly editing, and more.

Students researching in the MacDonald Collection

The MacDonald Collection came to be a focal point of the course, as analyzing a specific text from the Collection was a major assignment. Each student became an amateur book historian, deciphering details about their selected nineteenth- or early twentieth-century text and comparing it to a modern edition while researching the history of the text’s publishers, illustrators, bookbinders, editors, intended readers, or authors and the role that these elements played in establishing that particular book’s cultural status.

The Mount is fortunate to have a special collection like this thanks to the dedication of someone like William MacDonald. We were also fortunate to have extremely helpful librarians, Peter Glenister, Katie Puxley, and Lindsey MacCallum, who provided extra research help to students. The collection, much like the fore-edge paintings it contains, is a hidden treasure, tucked away in the Library behind an inauspicious door, its windows providing only glimpses of the wonders inside. The question of the Collection’s monetary value was raised at Mr. Glenister’s lecture, and it became clear that its worth goes beyond financial measure when considering its cultural and academic value, which is priceless.

Darcy Eisan is a senior English Major who works part-time in the MSVU Library.

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