A visit to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto

10-03-2005

There are few things as enjoyable as a good book, but what about a whole library? The University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto, has it all: a magical interior, an incredible 600,000 books, and an unparalleled collection of Czechoslovak samizdat writing, illegal publications banned under Czechoslovakia's communist regime. Jan Velinger visited recently and was more than a little impressed.

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, photo: www.library.utoronto.caThomas Fisher Rare Book Library, photo: www.library.utoronto.ca The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in the heart of the University of Toronto's campus is indeed an enchanting place: several floors of low-lit stacks rise quietly to a hexagonal ceiling, not unlike the magical libraries of Borges, Eco, and J.K. Rowling, all rolled into one. Tome after ancient tome seems to float along the edges of the walls as the building rises up. Librarian Luba Frastacky, who knows all its nooks and crannies, explains the library's mystique.

"It is a public library, a museum, an art gallery and anything else you want to make of it: a temple to preserving the knowledge that has been passed on to us, through the ages basically. We do have material here from 1789 BC, up to things that were printed just last week! Collections here that aren't particularly rare, but then material of which there are only three copies in the world, or maybe only even one."

Jan HusJan Hus For Czechs the library holds special significance because it houses one illuminated manuscript that could not be more important in Czech history: a chronicle of religious Czech reformer Jan Hus' sentencing for heresy in 1415.

"It's a large volume detailing what went on at the Council of Constance. And, the most memorable image for me is a two-page spread, done in black and red, of Jan Hus being brought before the Council, being judged and then condemned, and then taken off in a cart to the place he was burned. After he is burned at the stake, they sift through the ashes and mix them all up with ashes from the wood, and throw it all into a river, so that his remains could not be used as objects of adulation or worship."

Important though it may be, there is far more than just Hus' story within the library's walls. The library also houses history from more recent times, an unsurpassed collection of Czechoslovak samizdat writing whose authors include:

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, photo: www.library.utoronto.caThomas Fisher Rare Book Library, photo: www.library.utoronto.ca "Havel of course, Grusa, Klima, Vaculik. Vaculik with his a fabulous book called "Cesky Snar" about a year in the life a Czech dissident. It's about 600 pages. If you think about the fact that it all had to be type-written and bound in secret - it's an amazing undertaking. There are also periodicals that are critical of the government, literary periodicals: a broad range of materials."

Luba Frastacky, herself of Slovak descent, reminds listeners that of course this was in a country where danger in samizdat publishing was real and punishment undeniably harsh.

"Every machine, every typewriter, had to be registered and the police took a sample of what kind of print your machine would produce. So they could actually trace it back. If you were caught, that was it: you faced twelve years imprisonment."

10-03-2005