Monday, April 18, 2016

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Finding Sherlock Holmes in Toronto

The Toronto Reference Public Library, like Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Public Library, is architecture that makes library use a community activity, yet affords privacy, while showcasing the tremendous archives and resources available to all who visit the library. The library’s open yet futuristic interior design makes is so that no matter where you are in the library you can see the rest of it, and it’s impressive. However, I was not visiting the library for the architecture, instead I was there on a more arcane mission: I was in search of Sherlock Holmes, or to put it another way I was there to investigate the strange case of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the library.

On the library’s fifth floor, among their special collections behind glass doors sits a complete room, one that seems transported from a Victorian home, book lined floor to ceiling shelves, a desk, benches to sit on, a high-backed chair and a mantel place – and it is all devoted to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. All of his works: his novels, his plays, his journalism, his non-fiction on subjects from spiritualism to true crime. And yes, much of it is devoted to Sherlock Holmes. Outside the room is a curved wall which, itself, houses first and other editions of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. Appropriately the Conan Doyle Collection has been referred to as “Room 221B.”
How this extensive and ever expanding collection of Doylesiana came to be is a story all its own. In 1969, the library acquired some 200 volumes from the estate of Toronto rare book collector Arthur Baillie, as well as over 1500 items from Harold Mortlake of London, England. The following year the Library acquired a vast trove of Sherlockian material from Toronto collector Judge S. Tepper Bigelow, as well as over 200 editions of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “The Sign of the Four” from American collector Nathan L. Bengis.

 During his tenure Cameron Collyer, the first Curator of the Collection (who retired in 1991), grew the collection substantially. Today it includes, the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes in print in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, William Gillette ’s Sherlock Holmes play, letters and notebooks of Doyles’ and many, many editions of works relating to Doyle and to great detective Holmes. The collection is constantly updated new critical, biographical works about Doyle as well as new pastiches of Sherlock Holmes. In recent years, Doyle himself has become a character in fictions and those works are collected as well.

There are handsome slipped case first editions, and slip cased copies of the Strand, there are minutes of meetings of the Baker Street Irregulars, and the menus from their annual dinners, that are books and books about Doyle and his works, and Sherlock Holmes tales from every imaginable place, including Japan, (the work of Holmes expert Leslie Klinger is well represented). On the mantel place there is even a meerschaum pipe and a horn-handled magnifying glass with the inscription “Sherlock Holmes, 221B Baker Street, London”.

And here’s the thing, you are allowed to browse and handle any and all, no special gloves, no person looking over your shoulder, for as long as you like, as much you like. You can lose yourself in this amazing assembled collection of Conan Doyle. At most other places, you would see a selection of items behind class, and not really be able to explore the collection, and hold in your hands the originals the way you are here. All in all, it is quite delicious, an unexpected jewel, right there on the fifth floor of the remarkable Toronto Reference Library.
The collection can be seen during regular library hours, for more info visit the library website.

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