Monday, November 25, 2013

Wolfe Papers

The Globe and Mail reported on Saturday that the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto has acquired a trove of 233 letters written by James Wolfe to his parents between 1740 and 1759.  The price?  1.5 million, which the library managed to raise with the assistance of Helmhorst Investments and the Movable Cultural Property Directorate at Canadian Heritage.  Christies brokered the sale for what the Globe describes as an "unidentified British family"  -- which I presume to be the Warde family, descendants of Wolfe's friend George Warde, who lately have taken steps to divest themselves of several valuable heirlooms.  
A collection of letters written by General James Wolfe to his family is coming to Canada from Great Britain. The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, the largest academic library in Canada, has acquired the archive for about $1.5-million. (HANDOUT)
Photo: Globe and Mail.
This is a great score for the Fisher Library.  Yet two thoughts dampen my enthusiasm somewhat.  The first is that the Canadian purchase was made despite efforts to keep the documents in Great Britain.  A good overview of this collection's importance as ascertained by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, can be found here.  In light of this, Britain’s culture minister imposed a two-month ban on the export, in the hope that a British buyer might come forward to match or exceed the price offered.  None was found, and on Sept. 30th the minister approved the removal to Canada.  Canada's gain, in this sense, is Britain's loss.  Where does a collection of the sort belong?  To whomever has the deepest pockets?  I'm not entirely convinced that this is the best criteria.

The second thought that crossed my mind, speaking of where a collection of the sort might belong: where was Library and Archives Canada in all of this?  Were they approached by Christies?  Did they show any interest?  Did they make any attempt to raise funds for the purchase?  In other words, is the U of T's good news evidence of the ongoing bad news over at LAC?



  1. PFX, would old documents like this be more available and accessable for public or private viewing/research at LAC or a university library?

  2. Good question.

    Of course, LAC has had issues in making its material accessible to the public, whether online, on site, or through interlibrary loan in recent years. I had to chuckle recently when LAC announced that it was "enhancing" its inter-library loan service, when in fact it was merely reversing a fraction of its cuts to it. So, yeah, an acquisition by LAC does not necessarily entail better access for researchers. The Fisher, meanwhile, did announce plans to make the Wolfe material available online -- a good reason to rejoice.

    That said, I think that it's not just a question of access, but also of preservation. And that it's not just a practical issue, because the Fisher will certainly take good care of the material, but an aspirational one. Think of each institution's mandate. The Fisher's, unless I'm mistaken, is to to collect primary research materials reflective of the diversity of research conducted at the University of Toronto. That's cool. But LAC's is to preserve and make accessible to all the documentary heritage of Canada "for the benefit of present and future generations". That's cooler.

    If LAC's had not all but given up on acquiring material in recent years, I probably would not be calling it out. It's not so much the fact that LAC has passed up the Wolfe collection that riles me up, but the fact that it has been passing up tons of equally important collections in recent years.


  3. I imagine that if the funding at LAC is so dire that they are doing all of the cuts (Err, or is it re-strategizing?), they would not want to hand over 1.5 million dollars for a manuscript. Or maybe they would: the wild world of budgets is something that I've never been able to get a handle on. I wonder if LAC tried to go through the Heritage Fund channels? I suppose it's all a moot point now. At least they are in Canada, and in an institution that will take care of them.

    I do agree with you completely re: mandates, and perhaps more so due to LAC's public accountability.

    This may be a complete aside to the topic, but it would be interesting to see if Universities have become that much more of an economic juggernaut with rising tuition and enrollment (and if this is true, what they spend it on), as opposed to dwindling budgets for important institutions like LAC.

  4. Incidentally, _The Atlantic_ has a lovely, well illustrated overview of "The Evolution of the College Library" in its latest issue :