Wisdom of Life


The Robertson Davies Library

“A small college cannot hope to have a large library, but if it sets to work along the right lines it may aspire to the possession of a fine one… A book may be a thing of beauty, and an example of a great craft which we must not allow to die. The means of craft and the aspiration toward beauty live on in our College library.”

— Robertson Davies, Founding Master


Since its inception in 1963, the Robertson Davies Library at Massey College has developed special collections in the history of the book focusing on the technical aspects of the book arts including the history, practice and technique of printing, illustration, typography, graphic arts, papermaking and binding from the late 18th century through to the mid 20th century.

The library’s holdings include examples of book production ranging from the 15th to the 20th century but focus on the 19th century as represented in its largest collection, the McLean collection, the base of which was originally acquired from Ruari McLean (1917-2006), a British book designer and published printing, typography and graphic design historian. The Ruari McLean collection is an excellent resource for the study of 19th century printing, publishers’ bindings, colour printing and other graphic processes of illustration and design, including wood-engraving, lithography and chromolithography. Augmenting this resource is a growing collection of type specimen books and printing manuals. Researchers can access detailed catalogue descriptions of items in the library’s collections through searching the University of Toronto Libraries online catalogue.

Also included in the library’s holdings are the papers and reference library of the Canadian graphic designer and typographer, Carl Dair (1912-1967), who designed the first Canadian typeface “Cartier”. His reference collection is accessible through the U.ofT.catalogue and a findng aid to the archive can be found here: Carl Dair Fonds Finding Aid

In addition, the library houses a teaching collection of five working nineteenth-century iron hand presses and three clamshell presses supported with a vast range of wood type, metal type and ornaments, including many examples of wood blocks, lithographic stones, copper plates, steel plates and stereotype blocks. There is also a small group of punch cutting equipment including punches, matrices and moulds and remnants from the College’s papermaking facility originally housed in the basement include samples of handmade paper and paper moulds. The library has also recently acquired a teaching collection of bookbinding cloth sample books and folders representing the production of European book covering manufacturers from the second half of the 20th century.

Classes and demonstrations in hand-printing and bibliography are held in the library’s Bibliography Room by the College Printer, Nelson Adams, and student Printing Fellows for the University of Toronto’s Book History and Print Culture Collaborative Program, the English department, the Faculty of Information and the Faculty of Music in addition to students from typography and design programs at colleges in the Toronto area.

The Robertson Davies Library and the Book History and Print Culture Collaborative Program have partnered to create a two-year Printing Fellowship for one student in Book History and Print Culture and one student from the Massey Junior Fellowship to apprentice annually with the College Printer.

Students spend their apprenticeship year learning the basic skills of letterpress printing and design, and assist in the proper maintenance of the Bibliography Room and presses. The printing apprenticeship automatically leads into the printing fellowship in the second year. The Massey Printing Fellow assists in the printing and design of keepsakes for various College events and the BHPC Printing Fellow is responsible for printing demonstrations. Both Printing Fellows are responsible, with the College Printer, for teaching letterpress printing skills to the incoming printing apprentices.

In 1981, the Library was named for the Founding Master of the College, the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, who had a particular interest in printing and the book arts and strongly supported the development of a library at Massey College. A special area of the library houses copies of most of the editions and translations of his work.

The library is open by appointment only from 10 am-5 pm Monday through Thursday, closed on all University statutory holidays and over Christmas at the end of the Massey College Term. It is also closed over the summer from mid-June to the first week of August.

Researchers interested in consulting the collections are requested to call ahead to make an appointment at 416-978-2893 or email the Librarian, P.J. MacDougall, at library@masseycollege.ca . All items in the collection are non-circulating.



  • Sarah Koval

    Dec 02, 2016

    Hi, I am currently conducting research on song collections in the late 17C in England and I am trying to learn more about the history of a particular book, the English translation of Jacques Ferrand's Erotomania. I'm trying to find out how many print runs it went through, how many copies were printed, and more about its publisher in Oxford, and whether it would have been distributed in London. Is this something a research librarian at Massey Library could help me with? If so, I'd love to arrange a meeting. Thanks, Sarah

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