17 February 2013

Toronto, Part II: The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy

In November 2012, immediately following the World Fantasy Convention, I undertook my CSU Master of Information Studies Professional Placement at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy – a special collection housed at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library. The branch is opposite the University of Toronto, which contains some of the oldest and most beautiful buildings I saw in the city.

Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library

Entrance to the Lillian H. Smith branch - I love the griffins!
(Although perhaps only the right one is a griffin - I'm not sure what the winged lion is...)

Originally named the Spaced Out Library, the Merril Collection was established in 1970 when science fiction author, editor and critic Judith Merril donated her extensive collection of genre material to the Toronto Public Library. Renamed the Merril Collection in 1990, it is now Canada’s leading speculative fiction library collection, boasting over 72,000 items. During my placement I also visited the Toronto Public Library’s other special collections, including the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books at the Lillian H. Smith branch and the rare books collections at the Toronto Reference Library.

The view of the ground floor (with the circulating TPL collection) from the Merril Collection (third floor)

The Merril Collection is a non-circulating reference collection that is open to the public and visited by a range of different users, including local Torontonians reading genre materials for leisure, students from nearby universities or schools writing assignments on genre literature, and academic researchers from around the world.
The Merril Collection reading room, with subject index and short story card catalogues along the back wall!

The Friends of the Merril Collection, a non-profit organisation run by volunteers, supports the collection by running events and selling merchandise and Friends memberships. They also maintain a web presence, publish a quarterly newsletter (titled SOL Rising, in memory of the collection’s previous name) and run annual short story competitions.

Friends of the Merril Collection things for sale

Something that stood out to me during my placement that I particularly liked was that the Merril Collection maintains close ties with local book dealers (such as Bakka-Phoenix), as well as local and international small presses and rare book dealers, from whom they liaise and buy materials directly. Working with local bookdealers helps build a sense of community - this is a major advantage of the special collection being in control of its own acquisition policies.

Bakka-Phoenix, Toronto’s leading Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror specialty bookstore

The Merril Collection has the rather epic aim of acquiring one of every work published in the English language in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres. A combination of user interest and critical reception tends to drive the acquisition of young adult and children’s genre fiction, graphic novels, role-playing game manuals and non-fiction materials. The collection also contains extensive holdings of early science fiction pulp magazines and fanzines, and small collections of foreign language material, manuscripts and correspondence. Original science fiction and fantasy art is also collected.

Entrance to the Merril Collection's rare books

The Merril Collection fiction stacks

Boxes of pulp magazines, many of which are extremely rare and valuable
Some of the Merril Collection's graphic novels

An original painting owned by the Merril Collection and used on their promotional material. The painting is by Frank Kelly Freas and is based on a cover he made for Astounding Science-Fiction (vol. 54, no. 1, September 1954).

There were some truly incredible items in the collection, including a first edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and the first issue of Amazing Stories. They also had a large collection of Gene Wolfe material, which I will write about on my other blog.

First edition (second printing) of Stoker's Dracula

Amazing Stories no. 1 (April 1926), with original letter from Hugo Gernsback calling for subscribers

I undertook a range of activities during my three-week placement, including:

  • Answering reference questions at the information point (including reader’s advisory questions and research questions, often with the assistance of Merril Collection staff)
  • Indexing academic journal articles, including those in Science Fiction Studies and Utopian Studies
  • Retrieving materials for users
  • Receiving and processing new materials
  • Collecting new materials from local book dealers
  • Checking booklists and bookseller inventories against collection holdings

Me indexing articles from academic journals while at the service desk

First-person librarianship (patron played by my wife)

One of the most interesting and enjoyable activities I assisted with during the placement was helping run two events hosted by the Merril Collection – an author reading and signing and an academic presentation. The events were held an hour after the collection closed, giving us time to re-arrange the reading room to accommodate a speaker and small audience, as well as set up any audiovisual equipment that was required.

The reading was by Jo Walton, who recently won the Hugo and Nebula awards for her novel Among Others and was guest of honour for SFContario 3, the 2012 Ontario Science Fiction Convention that was held during my placement. Walton's reading was great - she read her story "Three Twilight Tales" from Firebirds Soaring (2009) - and I got a couple of her books signed afterwards.

Jo Walton's reading at the Merril Collection

Jo Walton signing the Merril Collection's copies of her books (being delivered by Lorna Toolis, the Head of the Merril Collection)

I had a fantastic time during my placement at the Merril Collection. The staff of the collection were incredibly friendly and welcoming and I was sad to be leaving after only three weeks. It was great being immersed in genre literature and getting to answer reference questions concerning science fiction and fantasy - something it was clear the collection staff, whose knowledge of genre materials is extensive, also loved doing. I learned a lot during the placement, especially about how non-circulating special collections can operate within a large public library network, and I am very grateful to Lorna and the staff at the collection for welcoming me and providing me with the opportunity to gain this valuable experience. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in special collections or genre fiction travelling to Toronto to visit the Merril and Osborne Collections at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library. I can't wait to go back again!

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