On display: A Stunning and Brutalist Tribute to Rare Books and Archives

Display case exhibit | Summer 2016 | U of T Archives Reading Room


On display  in our reading room is an exhibit curated by archivists Harold Averill and Marnee Gamble, on the planning, construction, and early days of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

When planning started for a new library at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s, the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections and (from 1965) the University Archives were finally promised their own building, initially dubbed the Rare Book Library. This exhibit highlights aspects of the realization of that project from its conception to its formal dedication as the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in April of 1973.

The initial, very modest 1961 proposal that was rejected as too expensive was, ironically, succeeded by a much more ambitious project two years later. The site was moved from behind the old Library by Queen’s Park to the current location, and the planning period was doubled to fifty years. Then the proposal became the University’s centennial project – the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Library – and a Library School building was officially added.

By 1965, an architectural firm in New York had been hired and the budget had more than doubled to $10 million. Two years later it had topped $41 million, with the Rare Book Library’s share being just shy of $3,000,000. Work on the site began in the last week of November 1968. Because it was too costly to drill down to bedrock, the whole edifice was designed to rest on a heavily-reinforced concrete slab seven feet thick that stood a foot above the water table. A year was to pass before the structure rose above ground level.

A ten-week strike and lockout in 1969 slowed construction and priority was given to the Library School building which was up by mid-1971. Nevertheless, by the beginning of 1971, the Rare Book Library was beginning to take shape, and eleven months later construction had reached the roof line. Attention then turned to the interior. The aggregate was sand-blasted to smooth it and vapour barriers were installed to forestall problems that had risen with the Library School (they soon proved deficient). Finishing, shelving, flooring, and furniture followed and after “three months were taken out of our lives”, the hard work of moving in was completed. The new stunning Rare Book Library opened on 21 December, 1972.