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Hidden in Plain Sight

Toronto’s Literary Secrets Revealed

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Hidden in Plain Sight

Every book is partly a puzzle to be assembled, a labyrinth to be explored by its reader, a repository of buried secrets waiting to be unearthed. No surprise that the mystery genre, in all its permutations, is so enduringly beloved, because it is in the nature of all readers to enjoy ferreting out concealed treasures and discovering secrets perhaps known only to themselves. Every city has similar hidden delights, and true city-lovers never tire of ferreting out the mysteries of their metropolis. Here, then, a collection of some of Toronto’s most satisfying literary curiosities.

bpNichol Lane

What a delight simply to come upon this inconspicuous alley running east off Huron, just south of Bloor, named for Toronto poet and editor bpNichol (1944-1988). The second payoff is the discovery of one of his poems embedded in the pavement ("A/LAKE/A/LANE/A/LINE/A/LONE"). The ultimate thrill is to happen upon Coach House Press, tucked into the middle of the block in its two-story 1890s red-brick coach house crammed with antique printing machinery and Canadian literary classics.

Lillian H. Smith Library

A similar promise of delightful discovery awaits the observant visitor to the Lillian H. Smith Library at College and Huron. Even the most distracted passerby is likely familiar with the majestic pair of winged bronze griffins by Ludzer Vandermolen that flank the doorway. It’s not until you approach more closely that you can make out numerous smaller animals worked into the bodies of the two mythical sentinels, including a fox, a turtle, a ram, a monkey, a bear, a frog and a lizard. Several are almost hidden underneath or behind the main figures; in fact, they would best be seen from a toddler’s perspective. (Vandermolen is also responsible for the bronze owl standing guard with outstretched wings outside the Beaches Library and hovering defensively over the small owls that peer out from between its giant claws.)

The Lillian H. Smith Library contains further marvels. For instance, the Merrill Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, housed within, counts among its holdings a sculpture of the malevolent mythical Cthulhu modeled by science fiction and fantasy illustrator Stephen Hickman. Resembling something between a vulture and an octopus, the Cthulhu hails from the pages of horror author H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote that it would destroy humankind when it awoke from its long sleep.

The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, located in the same building, holds the originals of many beloved illustrations, including doodles and letters by Beatrix Potter. There are also horn books, the little tablets that were once given to schoolchildren to help them learn their most essential lessons, such as the alphabet, the numbers and the Lord’s Prayer. The Osborne Collection also holds the book that was for many years the oldest text in the whole Toronto Public Library system. It’s a beautiful little gem of a book: a hand-lettered and illuminated edition of Aesop’s Fables on soft vellum, dating from the 1300s. A few years ago, that title went to a new acquisition: a pair of cuneiform-inscribed Mesopotamian clay tablets dating from the Old Babylonian Period. One is a financial record relating to a piece of agricultural land, while the other is a receipt for fabric stamped with the owner’s seal. Both date from between 2000 and 1600 B.C.E., and can be examined at the Osborne Collection, encased in protective transparent capsules.

Among other oddities of the collection is The Earth With Its Inhabitants, a miniature antique globe with an accompanying folded strip of 107 illustrations and captions in German and English. There’s also a brass and tin magic lantern with nine hand-painted glass slides dating from about 1880. These were used to project images onto a wall (or a cloud of smoke) as family party entertainment. The slides show nursery rhymes, comic characters and exotic scenes. Finally, the building itself has an excellent built-in secret: a basement made to look like a medieval castle, complete with wall-torches. Those who stand in the centre of its circular dungeon rotunda will be tickled to discover it’s an amplification chamber that turns their ordinary spoken words into eerie echoes.

Dufferin/St. Clair Library

There will never be a better time to visit the Dufferin/St. Clair Branch than when it reopens in late fall 2008 following a 15-month renovation and restoration. For some 40 years, two of the TPL’s best assets lay hidden there under many layers of house paint: murals on literary themes by George A. Reid and Doris McCarthy. During a ‘60s redecoration, both murals were covered up; the local Regal Heights Residents Association spearheaded the move to reveal them again, painstakingly, and they have now been fully restored.

Each one covers the upper section of all four walls of a reading room. Reid’s, deftly painted in earth tones with a sure brush and a subtle line, shows a sort of literary utopia where people of all sorts read books to one another in a gentle green landscape. Names of authors, and words like “romance,” “adventure” and “art,” appear on decorative scrolls. Doris McCarthy executed cheerful, colourful, buoyant fairytale scenes in the children’s reading room. The murals were completed between 1921 and 1932, but they have not been seen as they were meant to be seen since 1964.

Open Shelves

One of the most remarkable things about the Toronto Public Library system is that even the rarities among its holdings are available to anyone with a library card. In most cases, any library user who expresses interest in examining any item in the system will find they are allowed to do so fairly quickly, generally without any particular application process apart from showing some proof of residence, like an OHIP card or a utility bill.

You can visit the Baldwin Room at the Toronto Reference Library and handle original letters and account books there, without so much as a pair of cotton gloves, even if the documents shed fragments of antique paper every time you move them. Thus, while researching early Toronto history in order to write a play inspired by the 200th anniversary of the construction of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, this author was able to run her finger over an original signature of J.R. Radelmüller, the city’s first lighthouse keeper, murdered in 1815, whose ghost is said to haunt the limestone tower to this day.

Perhaps as a result of these laudably welcoming policies, the TPL is considered the world’s busiest public library system, with 1.2 million cardholders, representing 47 per cent of the population. In 2007, the system registered 15 thousand new people, and library users borrowed an average of 11.5 items per capita. There are currently 99 branches in the system. In 2010, a 100th branch is expected to open in the Waterfront District near Fort York, and number 101 is tentatively set to open not long afterwards in Scarborough Centre.

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

And not all of Toronto’s literary secrets are held within the collections of the TPL. For instance, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at Harbord and St. George, part of the University of Toronto library system, makes a truly remarkable set of special collections available to registered readers pursuing legitimate research. Anyone with a love of the technology of printing and publishing should be thrilled to think the they might be able to peruse authentic incunabula. These are books printed before 1500, such as the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle.

The Fisher Library holds Charles Darwin’s personal proof copy of On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, with the author’s own handwritten notes on it. It also has a copy -- one of only eleven known to exist -- of the so-called “Wicked Bible” of 1631, which erroneously omits the important word “not” from the commandment “thou shalt not commit adultery." You could ask to see the 15th-century copy of the Zohar (the major work of Jewish mysticism), or Galileo’s handwritten notebooks, or prints by William Hogarth and William Blake. Also represented are manuscripts by early Canadian writers like Susanna Moodie, Archibald Lampman and Mazo de la Roche, and the papers of Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Mavis Gallant, Gwendolyn MacEwen and John Newlove, to name but a few.

Toronto Reference Library

But for many Torontonians, the queen of libraries is still Raymond Moriyama’s sunlit Reference Library on Yonge north of Bloor. Fittingly, its Art Room houses the TPL’s most valuable book, the double elephant folio of Birds of America by John James Audubon, valued at $1.2 million.

Perhaps the most satisfying of all this city’s literary secrets is the Reference Library’s homage to the great detective Sherlock Holmes. The Arthur Conan Doyle Collection (established in 1969) resides in its own room, which is decorated to resemble The Master’s Baker Street digs, complete with armchair, desk and curios. Whether it’s a Batman comic featuring the inimitable sleuth; a rare first edition; a Royal Doulton “Sleuth” Toby mug, or even an illuminated stained glass window depicting the great man in his trademark deerstalker and Inverness cape, devoted Sherlockians will be sure to find it there -- at least between 2 and 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Tuesdays and Saturdays. Perfect inspiration for Toronto readers to seek out this city’s even more obscure and delightful literary mysteries.

Sarah B. Hood

Sarah B. Hood has published hundreds of magazine articles in dozens of periodicals, including The National Post, Enroute, Canadian Living, Spacing and Tandem. With Howard Akler, she wrote Toronto, The Unknown City (Arsenal Pulp Press). She is a contributor to the popular uTOpia essay collections published by Coach House Books, and to both the Berlitz Pocket Guide and the Insight Guide to Toronto. Sarah is also an online editor with Suite101.com and lectures on writing and culture in the Centre for Arts and Design at George Brown College.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
2 comments

Hi jaclynqh,

Major (and minor) Sherlock Holmes fans are welcome to visit the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection any Tues. Thurs. or Sat. 2-4 p.m.

Tours are also available by appointment. You can call the the Library's Answerline service at 416-393-7131 and ask for the Special Collections Dept. to make an appointment. Photos are fine--we'll just ask you to sign a form to say what they're for.

We'll look forward to seeing you.
Peggy Perdue
Arthur Conan Doyle Collection
Toronto Public Library

Thanks for this article! I'm a MAJOR Sherlock Holmes fan, and I never knew we had a Sherlock Holmes museum-type place downtown. I'm SO excited to check out that Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. :) Do they allow picture taking in there? :)

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