Spotlight on Special Collections

Welcome to The Gerry and Anna Maier Special Collections Reading Room at the St. Mary’s University Library!

What are Library Special Collections?

A collection of rare books, incunabula, manuscripts, periodicals, archival documents, and three dimensional objects that are regarded as special due to their age, rarity, fragility, provenance, and financial value. St. Mary’s Library Special Collections focuses on rare books.

Why is Special Collections kept separate?

The reason that books in Special Collections are kept in a separate area is because they are valuable and, in many cases, are in a fragile physical condition that requires careful handling, security, storage, and protection. This includes special handling procedures, customized housing to protect items, and environmental controls. Some items require expert care and mitigation due to their condition. This includes acidic paper, mould, foxing, broken spines, compromised binding, missing and/or torn pages. This is why these items do not circulate and cannot be removed from the Library. One can be assured, if the book is located in Special Collections there is something about it that is unusual.

Fortescue, J. W. A History of the British Army. Vol.1. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1910. Print. Source: Special Collections, St. Mary’s University Library.

Does a book have to be old to be placed in Special Collections?

No, books are placed in Special Collections for a number of reasons. Definitely age and rarity value are strong indicators of inclusion, however books in unusual formats or separate pieces subject to loss are housed here. Artist’s books and coveted first editions of books of limited print runs are prime examples.

It is not limited to physical items. Digital collections that represent primary sources are considered special. An example of this is Gale Primary Sources, a high quality diverse digital collection of historical newspapers, photographs, and unpublished materials.

Incunabula is an example of an artist’s book that was created collaboratively in 2014 that is kept in Special Collections because it is a limited edition with hand coloured images and intricate pieces that encourage a multilayered intertextual and multisensory experience of poetry. Included are instructions on how to experience the piece and a web link to listen to an audio recording.

Boyd, Melanie, Bronwyn Schuster, and Boyd, MJ. Incunabula. 2014. Print.
Source: Special Collections, St. Mary’s University Library.

To view further images:

To listen to an audio recording of Incunabula follow this link:

Password: incunabula

What is in our Special Collections?

There are nearly 1000 catalogued items ranging from 1566 to the twenty-first century. Subject representation includes Canadiana, regional focus, religion, military, English literature, and illustrated children’s books. Historically, adult books were also richly illustrated with colour drawings, engravings, photographs, and maps. Fine leather bindings, fold out maps and charts, unique book plates, gilt details, marbled fore edges, and eye catching embellishments are notable in our collection. Also, not all the items are books. We have a turn of the century Hamilton MFG. CO. letterpress typeset, art objects, and maps.

How do I access Special Collections books?

Search Special Collections materials in the Library Catalogue. Book an appointment or visit on scheduled open days. Consult our Library website to learn more.

Blog Post Written By: Catherine Carlyle, Library Services Specialist

Catherine joined the StMU Library team in April 2018. Prior to joining StMU she managed physical and electronic collections for libraries and cultural institutions in Canada and England. Notably, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, and Harrow Libraries, London, England. Her interests lie in living cultural heritage, preservation of collections, and art history.


Boyd, Melanie, Bronwyn Schuster, and Boyd, MJ. Incunabula. 2014. Print.

Boyd, Melanie, Bronwyn Schuster, and Boyd, MJ. Browyn Schuster. N.D. Web. 20 Sept. 2018.

Hirshon, Arnold; Jackson, Robert H. Forging the Future of Special Collections. American Library Association. Web.

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