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Aboard the HMS Terror at the University of Toronto

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library holds diary, drawings of surgeon Owen Stanley

(photo above by Jelena Damjanovic

What do the University of Toronto Library and the discovery of a wrecked ship in the cold waters off Nunavut have in common?

More than you would imagine, says Anne Dondertman, associate librarian for special collections and director of U of T's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

The dots connected last month, when a group of researchers led by Parks Canada discovered the wreck of a ship believed to be one of the two vessels commandeered by Sir John Franklin on his doomed expedition in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean to Asia. The two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, disappeared after they became locked in ice in 1846. 

This week, the wrecked ship was identified as the Erebus, believed to be the ship that Sir John Franklin was on when he died. (Read more about the discovery.)

The wreck of the Terror has not yet been found, but Fisher Library has the diary and drawings of Captain Owen Stanley. Ten years before Franklin’s ill-fated voyage, Captain Stanley was on an Arctic expedition on the same ship and the diary and drawings are from that time. 

Writer Jelena Damjanovic spoke to Dondertman about the significance of this collection and other treasures kept in the Fisher Library, a Toronto jewel in itself.

What can you tell us about captain Stanley’s diary and drawings?
Captain Owen Stanley was on the Terror in 1836 and 1837 under the leadership of George Back. That same ship, the Terror, along with the Erebus, were the two ships that went on the Franklin expedition ten years later. Stanley was a scientist and his role was to take astronomical and magnetic observations on this expedition that was supposed to be going to the North Pole. He was trained, as many people were in that time, to be able to do accurate drawings, but these go beyond that, because they’re really beautiful. He had a real artistic talent. The drawings, done both in pen and ink and watercolour, cover the whole period from when the ship first sailed from England to the winter that they spent in the ice in the Arctic, before they were able to get back again the following year.

How did the diary and drawings come to be in the Fisher Library’s possession?
Our collections are built partly through purchase, partly through donations, but this was something that was bought in 1972 from a private collector in London, right around the time that the Fisher building first opened. Obviously, it was a high point in terms of our Canadiana collections.

What makes it such a treasure?
It’s unique. These are original drawings by somebody who was actually on the expedition. He also wrote a diary about everything that happened during the time that he was on this voyage and we have access to both. The published account of the voyage is also available by Commander George Back. Stanley’s diary was not published.

Is this the only copy of captain Stanley’s diary and drawings?
This is the only copy. There’s another album of his drawings in Australia, because later on he spent a lot of time on expeditions in the South Seas and in the Australia/ New Zealand area. But this has many more illustrations of the Terror.

Can the public come and see this material?
The Fisher Library is open to the public; it’s not necessary to be affiliated with the University of Toronto.

We have these unique treasures and we want to make them available to the scholarly community – so our policy is that people can come in and access the material, under some supervision. The only thing they have to do is register with us, which only takes a couple of minutes. They can consult any of our collections in our reading room.

What other treasures are kept in the Library?
I’m not sure if people are aware that the University of Toronto library system continues to rank third in the ARL rankings, so third in North America in terms of our collections. At the Fisher Library, but also at the 44 other libraries at the University of Toronto, we have great strengths in multiple subject areas and languages, because, of course, our job is to support the research and teaching at the University and that is very broad. So, we have collections in humanities and the social science field, but also in the history of science, medicine and technology.

This summer at the Fisher Library, we had an incredible exhibit on Andreas Vesalius, one of the greatest anatomists of all times. We have antiquarian material going back to medieval manuscripts, but we also have modern material. For instance, we collect comprehensively in Canadian literature. We try to get everything that’s published today, as well as going back in time, so that we’re building the research collections for the future.

Is there a treasure you'd single out for the public?
Shakespeare’s First Folio is on display until the end of this week. That’s a great treasure of the Fisher Library. But we also have collections that you might not expect, such as the wonderful collection of Canadian beer labels. They started selling beer in bottles around the 1880s and had to put labels on them, so we’ve got them from across Canada going back to the beginning. We have a great collection of Portuguese postcards, but also Canadian small press things that are maybe only issued in a handful of copies. I’m a gardener, so I enjoy our great collections in horticulture and in botany. And we have literary collections in many languages, including English and French, but also German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish and many others. The range of our collecting is very broad, because the interests of our faculty and students are also very broad.

What would you say is the role of the U of T Library in a big city such as Toronto?
I think we are one of the hidden treasures of the city. In some cities libraries are a tourist destination, so people go to London and they go to the British Library, they go to Washington and they go to the Library of Congress, they go to Chicago and they go to the Newberry and so on. And we have great collections that are in that league.

We’ve been trying to do a lot more outreach and let members of the public know that we have interesting things that are worth their while to just come in and have a look. Our exhibition program – we have three different major exhibitions each year – allows us to showcase different parts of the collection. Right now we have an exhibit on World War I, mainly the literary works. Among them are some beautiful books, very evocative of the period that also show the influence that the war continued to have on literary works right up to the present days. It goes right up to people like Joseph Boyden and Pat Barker.