The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library - up close

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto is one of North America's finest, home to 600, 000 books including an unmatched collection of Czechoslovak underground writing that was banned under the Communist regime. Join Jan Velinger and his guide now - Canadian librarian of Slovak descent, Luba Frastacky, in a tour of the fascinating building and its extensive stacks.

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, photo: www.library.utoronto.caThomas Fisher Rare Book Library, photo: www.library.utoronto.ca Footsteps echo in the hallway of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. A dimly-lit building that forms part of a wider library complex belonging to the University of Toronto; in terms of its architecture the Thomas Fisher is one of the most recognisable buildings in the city, often described by students as "the head of a giant peacock". Inside, it's a sanctuary where anyone can view some of the rarest books on Earth. Librarian Luba Frastacky is kind enough to show me around.

"This is a manuscript, this is hand-written on vellum which is animal skin. And this was a standard book of philosophy for a student at university. And that's why it's this format: it was easily put into a pocket or something like that."

That is just incredible...

"The size of the writing..."

It's tiny in fact.

"It's miniscule, and then, of course, people have written annotations in the margins. That is why we think the margins are so large, so that the students could add their own observations."

And, when does this date back to?

"This is 12th century."

If holding a 900-year-old book - a book far older than Canada itself - isn't a humbling experience, I don't know what is. But, Luba Frastacky takes it in stride. The philosophy of the Thomas Fisher is that books are here to be seen and read - not viewed through bullet-proof glass.

"What you see here is probably 1/16th of our collection: we have about 600, 000 books. Um, we are basically full now and trying to create space from... from 'nothing'. But, we are on my favourite balcony, which is the 2nd one, and what we see here is one man's obsession with Lewis Carroll. He spent 40 years of his life collecting everything he could find, in any language, in any format, of anything by Lewis Carroll! So, we have not only books we also have playing cards, soaps, tea kettles, teapots..."

It's still "Alice in Wonderland" - it's amazing, isn't it?!!

"He was a lawyer. And everywhere he travelled on business, he added on a day or two, so he could visit bookstores. And he was very well-known that he would buy anything, basically: so, games, puzzles, you name it. Um, the man was a little obsessed! {laughs}"

And what an obsession! From the darkened balcony of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, looking across at row upon endless row of books and manuscripts, you'd almost expect to see the white rabbit reading, his feet propped up on footrest. It wouldn't be completely out of place.

Meanwhile, Luba Frastaky motions that we'll head down to the archives, where the library houses an incredible collection of Czech books I've specifically come to see - samizdat - that is, illegal or underground publications by authors whose names today read like a "who's who" of modern Czech literature.

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, there are literary periodicals: a broad range of materials."

Much of the collection was put together through the help of one man:

"We were very lucky because we had a professor, Gordon Skilling, at the university who started the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, and we first got to know him in 1969 when he wanted to give us his working library, which he had used to write his first important book on Czechoslovakia. Gradually, he established that there was somebody here who had an interest in the history in Czechoslovakia. So, he started giving us bits of his working library, so we have for instance, the papers of the Jazz Section, for instance, and then he gave us his working library on the history and politics of Czechoslovakia. When the 'samizdat' began appearing he and the Canadian government arranged to smuggle those books out, and then, with the advent of [Josef] Skvorecky's 68 publishers, we started getting the samizdat from him, so we have about 300 of those, I think that's the biggest collection in North America."

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, photo: www.library.utoronto.caThomas Fisher Rare Book Library, photo: www.library.utoronto.ca Luba Frastacky, herself a Canadian of Slovak descent, has nothing but the highest regard for Czech authors and their work - not only the quality of the texts and the care put into individual volumes, but ultimately the risk they took to express their vision, to get their vision out:

"Every machine, every typewriter, had to be registered and the police took a sample of the 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."

Volume after volume beckons from the bookshelves. Of course, visiting the Thomas Fisher, you will be accompanied by a librarian - perhaps Luba herself. But, it has to be said the librarians' expertise makes it all the more rewarding, helping make the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, in Toronto, a booklover's dream.

"This is Vaculik's 'Cesky Snar'..."

Oh yeah, there he is, the author himself...

"Yeah, and as you can tell, this is probably a 3rd or 4th copy. But, it's beautifully done... they're original photographs... and it's like 700 pages! It's an amazing, simply amazing, piece of work!"